Water levels in Lake Michigan are at near-record highs after hitting record lows nearly seven years ago. This rapid swing, coupled with increasing storm activity is eating away at the shoreline.
On a sunny and cold Saturday in December volunteers flocked to Weko Beach in Bridgman to fill sandbags.
“We have probably about 1,300 sandbags,” said Milo Root, he’s the Parks director for the city of Bridgman. The sandbags are built up in a pyramid and form and L-shape under the decking of the Beach House. It sits about 100 feet from the water.
“The idea is to keep most of the water from getting to the Beach House. This is kind of the low area on the beach. The water’s been coming up the furthest right here.”
In a storm, like the ones that hit the area hard around Halloween, the water can come right up to the foundation of the building.
The sandbags are a form of ‘soft armoring.’ The idea with any armoring is to build a structure that will protect what’s on the shore.
More and more along Lake Michigan’s southern edge that armoring is rock and sea wall.
Richard Norton studies coastal communities at the University of Michigan. He said building hard armor structures causes the beach in front to erode away, leaving the water deep off a rocky, man-made shore. It also inhibits natural sand movement along the shoreline. And eventually any armoring is not going to be enough.
"If you wanna be on the beach and enjoy the beach for what it is, you gotta let mother nature do her thing," Norton said. "And the more you try to change that the more trouble you’re going to get in to. The more cost and the more of a mess is going to be there when you finally raise your hands and say enough is enough.”
Though they’re dealing with the high lake levels and loss of beach, Bridgman’s lake edge residents are actually uniquely protected from erosion for a couple of reasons. Just north on the lakeshore is D.C. Cook Nuclear Plant, and to the south is Warren Dunes State Park. Neither have built out into the water.
The other protection is the city’s zoning that doesn’t allow property owners to build as close to the edge as neighboring communities.
South along the lake in New Buffalo, that’s not the case. When the city’s pier and harbor was first built, the Army Corps of Engineers manually moved sand around the structure. It doesn’t do that anymore, so that sand piles up; sustaining beaches to the north and exacerbating erosion to the south.
“A lot of the southwest part of Michigan, on that shore is eroding pretty aggressively because the prevailing winds are coming from North to South," Norton explains. "They’ve got all of Lake Michigan, it’s called the fetch...to really build up and it’s the waves and wind energy that causes a lot of the erosion.”
Along Shore Drive houses sit perilously close to the edge. A few have been demolished. A moving truck is parked on the street, soon to be filled as another house is emptied for fear of the Lake.
Berrien County Commissioner Ezra Scott stands in the blistering wind on a rock revetment built out into the lake where a small, brick water intake building sits.
“Our problem is that right out in front of this rock revetment, because there’s no beach, it’s about eight feet deep. And the pipe that comes out of this intake is usually covered in sand.”
The city gets its water from the pipe. Without the protective cover of the sand, it’s exposed.
And getting drinking water isn’t the only problem.
Just south of the revetment, Scott climbed over caution tape onto a deck at a condo community. A set of stairs that lead down to the water, and one around the bluff have been washed away.
The waves pound against a thick wall of huge rocks stacked on one another.
“See those big armor stones?" Scott points to the armoring on the shoreline. "This bluff went to those armor stones.”
The lake has come up over the rocks and carved a bluff out of the sand. “Right up and taking the sand away," Scott said. "That’s about 75 feet. As you can see they’re down there working to beef this all up.” Heavy equipment moves in more rocks, a project that's costing the condo owners serveral million dollars.
Scott says of 78 condos in the community, 73 are owned by out-of-town residents. Largely people from Chicago that vacation in the area.
Cities along Lake Michigan’s shoreline rely on tourism and the non-homestead tax base of these lakefront vacation homes to sustain them. “They pay 43 percent more taxes than homesteads do. That’s a lot of tax loss,” Scott said.
But if all the homes are protected, the reason for them being there is lost.
“If everybody armors and we lose all of our beach we’re losing a lot of our tourist income for the summer," Richard Norton explains "Because who’s going to want to go to a part of the beach where they can’t do anything on the beach because there’s no beach?”
The Berrien County Commission passed a resolution, asking state and federal lawmakers to step in and declare a disaster. That would mean funding and expertise funnelled in to fix the problems.
But high water levels, and low ones, are not new. Water levels in the Great Lakes are cyclical. Scientist don’t know how much, or in what way climate change will impact water level cycles. They do know that global warming has led to more powerful and frequent storms.
Climate change may also impact the time between cycles, and create greater differences between highs and lows. In January 2013 the lakes dipped to record lows after 15 years on the decline. Since then, they’ve rebounded.
Drew Gronewold is a hydrologist and professor at the University of Michigan’s school for environment and sustainability. He said low levels created a false sense of security.
“That’s a relatively long time period when it comes to home ownership, property management, real estate sales. And I think the more years that went by the more comfortable people got.”
The more comfortable people get, the closer they build to the lake. Gronewold said eventually those lake levels will go down again.
“As water levels decline, and as the erosion problems go away to hold on to the decision making rhetoric that’s going on during this time period. Which, in particular, is ‘don’t build a house on the edge of a bluff.’”
Commissioner Scott said the area needs help now, to protect people’s homes, and their livelihoods.
But over time, the Lake cares little about people’s homes or tourism. The levels will go up and down, and the waves will continue to crash onto the shore.
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