From 2013 to 2016, Lake Michigan water levels rose four feet. The high water levels affected — and still are affecting — the stability of coastal bluffs and beaches. Mt. Pleasant, Wisconsin, was a community particularly hard-hit, with one homeowner moving his house and another tearing down his garage before it toppled into the lake. At least a dozen other garages and public utilities were also endangered.
Concerned residents looked for help, and they needed it fast, before the next storm struck and waves did further damage. In response, Gov. Scott Walker asked the Wisconsin Emergency Management (WEM) agency to hold public meetings last spring and summer with residents and local officials to discuss the issue and what measures could be taken.
Among those presenting at the two meetings was Wisconsin Sea Grant’s Coastal Engineer Gene Clark. Along with representatives from WEM, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Wisconsin Coastal Management Program, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Clark helped explain why the erosion was happening and provided information and resources to the homeowners to help them figure out next steps to protect their properties.
Usually, people who want to take measures to control coastal erosion need to wait a minimum of 30 days before their plans and permits are approved by the DNR. However, before the second meeting, Clark and Martye Griffin with the DNR were able to figure out a way to speed up the process.
“My main work was helping Martye develop a temporary permit that could be issued in 48 hours so that property owners didn’t have to wait for 30 days or more,” Clark said. “The measures allowed under the temporary permit weren’t going to be a cure-all, but at least they were going to slow things down so that homeowners could then get an expert working to design a long-term fix. It gave them hope that they could do something.”
The simplified permit allowed homeowners to place protective rocks at the base of their bluffs to slow down the erosion, with the caveat that they would work with a professional contractor within the next year or two on a final solution. But it couldn’t be just any old rock, and the rock couldn’t be dumped over the side, it needed to be carefully placed on the bluff. Clark helped the DNR work out those details.
Clark estimates that four out of a dozen homeowners who attended the meetings used the quick permit to save their property. Clark is also working with a group of 14 homeowners in Mequon who are facing similar problems. And an infusion of $840,000 recently announced from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will have many of the same partners working together on Lake Michigan erosion solutions over the next three years.
Eventually, the U.S. Army Corps will get a plan in place for a fix in Mt. Pleasant, but that process alone will probably take two years, Clark said, and then several years after that before protective structures are built.
“I’m really glad we were able to help these folks,” Clark said. “They were in a dire situation, with a vertical bluff face that wasn’t stable at all. It wasn’t going to last much longer.”