Disappearing beaches, crumbling roads: Lake Michigan cities face 'heartbreaking' erosion

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(Photo: Geof Benson, Beverly Shores Town Council)

Posted March 26, 2020

Just three months ago, Lake Michigan’s waters were more than 50 feet away from Lakeview Drive in the small town of Beverly Shores, with a beach in between the road and the water.

But after multiple storms, the waters now have eaten the beach, the double-flight of stairs down to it, and more than 3 million pounds of sandbags that were urgently placed there in an effort to stall erosion.

Beverly Shores, a city of 613, has already drained its reserves, spending nearly $365,000 on the sandbags, which are now washed away. Efforts to fix the road and several other scours will cost millions more, Beverly Shores Town Council President Geof Benson said.

And the damage is likely far from over. Lake Michigan is at near record levels,15 inches above this time last year. Its waves, which can top 20 feet during storms, are now chewing away at the earth underneath the road.

To fight such erosion, officials in several shoreline communities and Indiana Dunes National Park say they need money. City officials are calling on the state and Gov. Eric Holcomb to declare a state of emergency and help with funding. They complain that the state isn’t doing enough and might, possibly, even be standing in the way.

“Erosion is not new, but with the severity and speed of it, this is different,” said Benson, who has lived there for 31 years. “One more storm, and that road could be at the bottom of the lake.”

A spokesperson for the governor’s office said Holcomb will declare a disaster if the damage on the shoreline meets criteria laid out by the federal government. Officials did not respond to questions clarifying that statement. But such a declaration would go a long way: It would allow communities to apply for federal emergency funding.

Many of these small towns have fewer than 1,000 residents. But the impact of the erosion, they say reaches across the state of Indiana.

Indiana Dunes is one of the top 10 most bio-diverse national parks in the country, said Colin Deverell, program manager of the National Parks Conservation Association’s Midwest Office. It attracts more than two million people a year with a regional economic impact of $500 million.

“The erosion of the Indiana Dunes beaches is a serious problem that if left unchecked, could destroy the region’s natural resources and damage the economy,” Deverell said.

“The impacts of this are not just felt in northwest Indiana, but all over the state,” he added. “This is Indiana’s national park and something all Hoosiers can take pride in, so we all should be thinking about how to preserve it.”

'Like an open wound'

Access to Indiana’s beaches has already been diminished. Beverly Shores was forced to close its road with access to homes and Indiana Dunes, the newest national park across the country. That road teeters on the edge of crumbling 20 feet down into the lake, as waves crash into the dunes and carve out the road's foundation.

Also at risk is the infrastructure that runs beneath the road: Many residents could lose water and gas if the road were to cave in, Benson said.

“It’s like an open wound,” he said. “Because of the high water levels, lack of shelf ice and sustained winds, it’s opened up the shoreline to the wrath of 300 miles of water.”

In addition to near-record high water levels, Indiana’s mild winter this year has also meant Lake Michigan failed to produce an ice shelf, which protects the beach from harsh storms that roll through.

That combination has wreaked havoc.

“The lake always has cycles, and they’re kind of measured by how much beach we have. This year, however, is entirely different,” said Nancy Schwab, a homeowner along the shoreline for decades. “Erosion was the last thing on our minds when we bought our house, so this is frightening and surprising us, in terms of how quickly it’s happened.”

Michigan City’s beach, which is the town's big draw for tourism, has shrunk to less than half its normal size, estimates State Rep. Pat Boy, whose district encompasses roughly 12 miles of shoreline. She said water has strung garbage — even boat hulls — along the beach.

The Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk has suffered heavy damage, including the loss of walkways and a viewing platform. A parking lot and beach access has also been closed for several months.

In Whiting, water so strong it rips park benches from concrete and flings thousand-pound boulders like pebbles is flooding the East Chicago-adjacent city’s shoreline.

Fortunately, mayor Joseph Stahura said, this shoreline is bordered with “superficial” property — a park and boardwalk, rather than private buildings or homes. But the work required to clean up these areas is more than the town’s six-person parks department can provide, costing the city days of work after each weather event.

“I’ve lived on the shores of Lake Michigan and Whiting now for 63 years,” Stahura said. “I’ve never seen the water this high.”

Calls for emergency assistance

That is why communities say they need help, but they feel that the governor isn’t acting. Since December, they have called on Holcomb to declare an emergency, which they hope can open access to funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

These small towns have issued emergency declarations themselves over the last few months. As have Porter County’s commissioners. Town officials say they need help identifying the best solutions so they don’t find themselves in this same situation in just a few years.

But then there's the question of whether public funding should be used to prop up private homeowners, who own a substantial portion of shoreline property in many of the towns calling for emergency aid.

Howell said in Ogden Dunes, any federal emergency funding would go toward reinforcing the city's shoreline protection system. While that would benefit private homeowners, it also would protect public infrastructure such as access-ways to the beach. Federal aid, he said, often covers private property damage caused by disaster.

"I think the job of the government is to protect both government property and private property," Howell said. "I don't think we abandon private individuals during an emergency."

Porter County Commissioner Jim Biggs said that he is “a little perplexed” as to why the state has “felt it’s not necessary to declare a state of emergency.” These cities need help, he said, to figure out steps to take.

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A study was started by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineersin 2007 to help determine and implement beach erosion solutions at the lakefront.

That federal study, however, has stalled since 2010 because the state will not sign on to be a co-sponsor — which is required for the project to move forward. Deverell said his organization lobbied the state legislature “pretty hard” in 2019 to get the local match — which is $850,000 — and partnership, but the state declined.

“We’ve been stuck on phase two for 10 years,” said Deverell. “This study is the gateway to federal funding that could solve the problem long term.”

Holcomb’s office declined to answer specific questions on why it has not agreed to co-sponsor the study.

After surveying the shoreline by helicopter, last month Holcomb signed an executive order acknowledging the high water levels on Lake Michigan and directing state agencies to collect information on damages that could provide support for an emergency declaration.

The order also requested impacted communities to provide written assessments to the Department of Homeland Security outlining the resources they need for help.

Without funds from the state or federal government, Beverly Shores residents have raised $70,000 to help fix their problems. And now that the town has drained it’s reserves, it’s town council just a week ago voted to go further in debt.

They are hoping to secure a $5 million bond, Benson said, “because no one is coming to our aid.”

Natural vs. developed shoreline

Even if Holcomb were to declare an emergency, how any money would be used is less certain.

Small towns concerned for their public infrastructure, homeowners worried about protecting their property and the national park committed to saving a treasured Indiana resource are all grappling with one question: What is the best long-term fix?

Park officials and environmental advocates want to enhance the natural shoreline, whereas homeowners and many cities seek to build sea walls and other protections for the real estate. And that has sometimes put them in conflict.

Paul Labovitz, superintendent of the park, said park officials are working with communities such as Beverly Shores to rethink where to locate roads and buildings. Labovitz said the park may be“adopting a policy of retreating away from the lake for our facilities.”

Park officials have decided to not invest in protecting assets on the lakefront, he said. The first example of that will be seen this summer when the park will not replace a boardwalk at Beverly Shores. Instead, that money will go toward beach nourishment at Portage lakefront. Park staff plans to place 50,000 cubic yards of sands on the beaches to help buffer from high waters, wind and waves.

Based on some previous analysis, beach nourishment will be one of the major strategies identified for long-term solutions, according to Deverell, of the National Parks Conservation Association. Having the natural plants and grasses of the dunes helps hold on to the sand and secure the beaches, he said..

Joel Brammeier, executive director of the Alliance of the Great Lakes, also advocates for a natural shoreline. The Alliance is an environmental group dedicated to protecting the lakes.

Still, Brammeier acknowledges that such a policy creates difficult decisions for communities that want to build structures to protect existing development along the water's edge.

“Any further development and increased armoring of the shoreline will only make things worse,” Deverell said.

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Structures such as the Burns Waterway Harbor, the U.S. Steel Harbor and others jutting into the lake pose additional complications.

Water currents circulate sand clockwise around the perimeter of Lake Michigan, constantly moving and replenishing beaches.But the harbors interrupt that circulation. Sand builds up on one side of the structure while the other side slowly diminishes.

In Ogden Dunes, a town just west of the Burns Harbor, enough sand to fill five Lucas Oil Stadiums has disappeared from the beach, according to Rodger Howell, chairman of the town’s Beach Nourishment and Preservation Committee.

That's largely because Burns Harbor, Indiana's major port, blocks the movement of the sand, Howell said, accelerating erosion. “It makes the storm and lake events significantly worse in Ogden Dunes,” he said.

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It also doesn't help that a portion of the town’s protective system, a steel wall bordering the shoreline, recently failed, collapsing under the pressure of surging water.

Without assistance, the town’s infrastructure and more than 600 homes are at risk, Howell said.

But Indiana Dunes National Park and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have opposed a permit to add additional stone reinforcement. In response, they filed a lawsuit in January accusing the two entities of interfering with shoreline protection.

Source: indystar