Climate Change Is Making Floods Worse. Michiganians Blame Government for Inaction

The apparent failings of Michigan local governments to take the necessary steps to protect residents from flooding are poisoning the conversation around climate change.

Climate Change Is Making Floods Worse. Michiganians Blame Government for Inaction

In 2019, parts of the state of Michigan were flooded for days. Wayne County was one of the hardest-hit regions, with more than 3,000 homes affected. Homes in Detroit weren’t spared either. Governor Gretchen declared a state of emergency as the city tried to cope with the impact of the flooding.

The situation brought back memories of the 2014 floods when Detroit saw its second-highest single day of rainfall since 1925. Local storm drains were overwhelmed quickly, and streets and suburbs got submerged. Homes were flooded, and residents had to resort to floating kayaks and boats to move around. The sewage system was also damaged with millions of gallons getting washed into the sea.

This 2020, the flood forecasts from experts suggest that many more communities will be affected by flooding, including mid-Michigan inland communities. Many people are already dreading the spring.

Index based on runoff volume exceeding 95th percentile of a 1990-2010 baseline. Source: Climate Central

Climate change is a contributor to the more frequent flooding. On their part, however, residents can hardly see beyond the local governments’ ineffectiveness in dealing with floods and preventing the level of damage that usually follows. This is made worse when there are neighborhoods in the same region that don’t get affected by the floods when they come, as was the case between Trenton and Southgate in 2014.

While homes in Southgate were badly damaged, the infrastructure in Trenton was able to withstand the floods. Under such conditions, it is harder for the affected Michiganians to look beyond their governments when discussing such environmental challenges, and to be more open to climate change conversations.

Flooded Towns, Rivers, and Farms

The warming climate is causing increasingly wet weather across Michigan. Instead of the usual slow drizzles of the past, precipitation is now more likely to come in large bursts that end up stretching storm sewer systems, wetlands, and rivers.

The problem fueled by climate change has been made worse by infrastructure developments. Today, water from nearby residential areas reach the river faster due to the highly developed watersheds and drainage districts and the loss of hardwood forests. More development along rivers and lakes makes those areas more prone to flooding. This is why counties like Ingham are expected to flood this year.

The faster river flows as a result of flooding damages sediment, causes a reduction in the quality of water, and has a negative impact on the ecosystem in general. Species like frogs, salamanders, and freshwater mussels, which are highly important to the region’s ecosystem, will find it a bit more difficult to cope in faster waters.

Michigan farmers are also on edge about the spring predictions because more widespread flooding could cause another difficult year. In 2019, the flooding meant that many farmers could not start planting until June/July. The shorter window to grow crops led to lower yields—one of the reasons why the 2019 harvest figures for crops like soybean and corn were far below average.

Detroit Particularly Vulnerable

This aerial video shows extensive flooding in Metro Detroit on May 1, 2019.

Detroit is one of the best examples of Michigan’s ongoing struggle with regular flooding. Street flooding has become a norm in the area. In 2016, floods disrupted movement in the area, including sporting activities in generally well-equipped event centers. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department had to set up a phone line so that residents can call them in to clear street floods.

During the 2019 floods, the water level in the streets reached car windscreens as canals creeks and lakes overflowed, flooding streets and houses. Firefighters had to rescue trapped residents using inflatable boats.

If the 2020 flood predictions come to pass, Detroit streets will most likely be in the news again.

Flooding and Climate Change

Due to the fact that a lot of factors come into play to determine if flooding will occur in an area or not, connecting it to climate change is not always straightforward. The lack of flood data from the past also means it is harder to compare today’s floods and draw a definitive climate-related conclusion.

However, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it is increasingly obvious that climate change has influenced the water-related factors that contribute to floods—especially snowmelt and rainfall. So, although climate change doesn’t cause flooding directly, it has a strong impact on another factor that directly causes flooding: heavier precipitation.

Climate change increases the risk of flooding by causing heavier precipitation. A warmer atmosphere accumulates and dumps more water. The US has warmed by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit since 1901 which has led to a 4% rise in wetness. Although heavier rainfall doesn’t always lead to floods, it makes them more likely. Even in moderate amounts, rainfall can cause severe damage in areas dealing with frequent urban flooding.

Flood Victims Blame Their City, Not the Climate

All around Michigan, the infrastructure doesn’t show any considerations for a future influenced by climate change. Bridges, culverts, and storm drain around the city are still being designed with the floods of the last few years as the benchmark. The bulk of the designs are based on the premise that the largest floods the infrastructures will see during their lifetime are the so-called 50-year flood.

However, with climate scientists predicting more intense and frequent rainstorms and floods across the Midwest, there is no guarantee that the 50-year flood of the future across Michigan will stay in line with the current predictions of today. Unfortunately, the infrastructure designs are not leaving any room for a possible deviation in expected flood intensity.

When the infrastructure gets overwhelmed during floods, victims immediately blame their city leadership for not doing more to prevent damages instead of thinking about how climate change may be worsening the situation. This is because faulty or under par infrastructure dot the landscape everywhere they look.

The local governments have failed to manage environmental conditions in various neighborhoods properly before now. In some places, residents are still waiting for the leadership to fix the drainage and modernize the sewer system.

Therefore, it is a lot harder to get them to assimilate the climate change conversation when these problems are still staring them in the face. These local governments’ failures are making it harder for such people to make the connection between climate change and flooding.

Increased flooding isn’t the only climate-change-related trend to watch out for as the year rolls on. Here are a few more:

A warming Lake Superior

The Great Lake is heating up at an average of two degrees Fahrenheit every decade. This is why it is one of the world’s fastest-warming lakes. There is reason to believe that the trend won’t slow down this year. Scientists also suspect that the warming has also led to a cyanobacterial bloom on the lake.

Increased Lyme disease risk

Climate change has made warmer winters more common. This has made the environment more comfortable for the black-legged ticks that cause Lyme disease.

Elongated growing season

The warming temperature in Michigan has tilted the growing season towards an earlier spring in the last few years. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that this will be advantageous for farmers as warmer temperatures could also mean a more conducive environment for known pests.

Climate Change Solutions for Michigan

Michigan may be underprepared to deal with the flooding and other climate-change-related impacts today, but it is already taking steps to cut emissions and better position the state to contribute to an environmentally friendly Midwest and the US at large.

In February 2019, the new Department of Environmental Quality director (DEQ) director, Liesl Clark reiterated the state’s readiness to take action to mitigate the harmful effects of climate change. The climate crisis report published highlights some of the solutions the state has in mind to achieve its goals in this area. They include the following:

Sustainable Transportation

1914 Detroit Electric Car | The Detroit Electric, built by Anderson Electric Car Co., became one of America's best known and longest lived electric automobile marques. Production in Detroit, Michigan spanned the period from 1907 to 1938. Detroit Electrics were quiet, and required no hand cranking, making them a favorite with ladies.

The Union of Concerned Scientists states that replacing 400,000 fuel-burning vehicles with electric options will prevent 2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere. Michigan is working towards having more electric vehicles on the road. In 2018, there were more than 25,000 jobs in Michigan involved in the design and manufacturing of electric and hybrid electric vehicles.

Renewable Energy

Michigan is making strides in renewable energy penetration, and in the coming years, the focus will be on improving the numbers. Currently, the main renewable energy sources in the state include wind, hydroelectricity, and solar—with 69%, 12% and 4% of the renewable energy generation. With the price of solar dropping by 32% in the last five years, the state is expecting to add up to 921 megawatts of new solar connections over the next five years.

Climate-Smart Agriculture

Although agriculture has an uncertain future in the face of climate change, the state has included the industry in its solution plan. It is encouraging farmers to adopt sustainable practices that can help in the reduction of agriculture-induced greenhouse gas emissions. Some of the techniques in use include rotational grazing, planting of cover crops, and the use of renewable energy systems.


At the state level, Michigan has shown a willingness to fight climate change with some of the approaches it has adopted in recent years. However, as long as flooding remains an ever-present danger, and failings in government to take the necessary steps to protect them remain apparent, the conversation around climate change and the impact it has on the frequency and severity of natural disaster will likely continue to face undue opposition.

Augurisk is a risk assessment platform for Climate change, Natural Hazards and Societal Risks. We help people and businesses assess climate risks associated with their properties, so they can better prepare for the future.