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Army Corps to nourish private Lake Michigan beaches using federal funds

Posted on August 24, 2022

Next week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will begin a $281,00 project to dredge sand from the Black River channel in South Haven.

But instead of depositing the 18,000 cubic yards of sand along the adjacent public beach — where the city wants it to go — the Army Corps will instead place it along a 3,500-foot stretch of heavily-armored private shoreline immediately south of the city’s popular South Beach.

The reason, according to the Army Corps, is that the state of Michigan doesn’t want dredged material placed near a drinking water intake — which, in South Haven, is off South Beach. Instead, the sand is being put on the nearest shoreline south of the public beach, the Army Corps said.

“The state won’t allow us to place that (material) in the area of the public beach because of the proximity to the South Haven water plant and water intakes,” said Christopher Scropp, an Army Corps civil engineer in the Grand Haven office.

“They’re real touchy about any contamination of drinking water that could occur,” he said.

However, the state has a slightly different story.

According to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), the Army Corps asked to place the dredged sand along private shoreline between Chippewa Court and Chesnut Street in 2019 when it applied for a state water quality certification for the work.

But, several days ago, the Army Corps requested that certification be amended to allow the sand to be placed at South Beach, EGLE said. The state is still reviewing the request.

“They are asking us if we would accept sediment data from 2013 to justify our decision to amend the certification, if we were to do so,” said Matt Smar, a federal consistency specialist with EGLE’s water resources division.

“That question is not yet resolved.”

The water intake concern? “I have not heard that,” Smar said.

In the middle are frustrated city officials. Last year, South Haven asked the Army Corps for $300,000 in “beach nourishment” assistance to put 30,000 cubic yards of sand along South Beach. The sand would replace losses from high water-driven erosion and help protect the city’s water treatment plant and reservoir under beach from the whims of Lake Michigan.

During near-record water levels on Lake Michigan in 2020, the city put 800 feet of HESCO barriers along the beach, which were removed in March as the lake has receded. The purpose was to protect the drinking water infrastructure.

“We need something to buffer that,” said William Hunter, city public works director, who said he’s been pushing for the sand to be put on South Beach for the past year.

The intake is “quite a distance” from shore, he said.

Hunter said Army Corps has put dredged sand along private property in the past, but he agreed that doing so could raise eyebrows about how public money is being spent.

“It looks like you’re building beach for private property,” he said.

The South Haven dredging funds come from the Corps’ fiscal year 2022 budget and the work is being done by King Co., a Holland contractor. Dredging in South Haven and St. Joseph was set to occur in June, but was delayed when the Army Corps pivoted resources to Muskegon, where shoaled sand at the harbor mouth caused a freighter grounding in April.

Dredged sand used for beach nourishment must be tested to ensure it’s free of contaminants and acceptable for “beneficial reuse.” The dredged material must be 90 percent sand, with allowance for the remaining 10 percent to be silt, clay, debris or other organic materials.

The Army Corps contractor is using a hydraulic dredging method, which essentially vacuums sand from the bottom and pipes it to a nearby spot offshore. Because the sand is deposited in the water near the shore, not directly on the beach, it requires a water quality certification from the state under section 401 of the Clean Water Act.

In South Haven, “I think it’s 99.9 percent sand,” Scropp said.

“There are no contaminants there,” Scropp said. “It’s clean beach sands.”

In a Thursday, Aug. 18 news release announcing the launch of the South Haven project, the Army Corps addressed the situation, saying that South Beach “may seem the logical placement site” and that it was working on an environmental assessment to “to evaluate whether or not we will be able to place material there next year.”

Because South Beach is an “accretion zone,” wind and wave action would eventually move any sand placed there southward down the coast over time,” Scropp said.

The 3,500-foot stretch of private shoreline where the sand would be deposited is heavily armored with seawalls and boulder revetments to protect homes on the bluff from high water-driven erosion. Such shoreline hardening has become controversial in recent years due to its potential to interrupt natural shoreline sediment deposition and exacerbate erosion at neighboring downdrift properties.

“Anything we remove from the harbor and put back on the beach is eventually going to find a home somewhere along the shoreline,” Scropp said. “We’re placing it as near to the harbor as the state will allow us to place it.”

Putting harbor sand on the city’s other public beach, North Beach, could be done but Scropp said the prevailing southward direction of littoral drift in southern Lake Michigan would likely move it right back into the channel within a year or so.

Smar said the Army Corps’ certification for the South Haven project is good for five years and doesn’t expire until 2024. He’s not sure the reason for the rush.

“I guess they want to get their dredging project done,” Smar said. “We’re not telling them they have to do the dredging and beach nourishment now. That’s not our place.”


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