Michigan coastal towns try sand 'renourishment’ to restore beaches

The beach in New Buffalo has disappeared — a result, residents say, of a harbor to the north that has blocked the natural migration of sand down the beach. (Photo courtesy of Ron Watson)

As high Great Lakes water levels gobble up Michigan’s sandy beaches, some shoreline communities are turning to an engineered solution known as “beach renourishment” for temporary relief.

By taking sand from offsite and spreading it along the beach, these communities — including St. Joseph, New Buffalo and Grand Haven — hope to restore beaches lost to high water and erosion.

In some cases, residents blame erosion not only on natural sand loss from encroaching waves, but on human-made structures that jut out into the water and block the sand’s natural migration along the shore. 

In the far Southeastern Michigan town of New Buffalo, residents who live south of the local U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-owned harbor say they have watched for decades as breakwaters installed by the Corps to protect the harbor slowly starved their once-wide beach of sand. 

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The Corps, recognizing the harbor would block sand migration down the beach, tried to mitigate the problem by trucking in sand from offsite. But the federal agency was only authorized to provide a certain amount of sand, and long ago ceased the trucking operations after exceeding that quota, said Nick Zager, chief of planning for the Corps’ Detroit district. 

Today, the Corps’ renourishment efforts in New Buffalo are limited to depositing sand from periodic harbor dredging onto the nearby beach. Residents and local officials argue that’s nowhere near enough to make up for the damage the harbor has done.

New Buffalo’s beach “was already shrinking,” said New Buffalo Township Supervisor Michelle Heit. “Couple the harbor with the high lake levels, and it’s a terrible situation.”

In this photo, taken in 1960, New Buffalo’s beach is expansive. Residents say a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers harbor constructed in the 1970s has starved the beach of sand. Now they want the Corps to fix the problem by bringing in more sand from offsite. (Photo courtesy of Ted Grzywacz)

The concept of beach renourishment — bringing sand from offsite to rebuild beaches scoured by erosion — is not new. Coastal communities throughout the world use it to maintain pristine beaches in the face of shoreline erosion. 

When the Army Corps dredges harbors to make them passable for boats, the agency often deposits the “spoils” along nearby beaches, including beaches throughout Michigan.

Josh Hachey, chief of technical services branch for the Corps’ Detroit District, said the agency has received an uptick in requests to dredge harbors in coastal communities since Great Lakes water levels began to rise. 

“They recognize that a byproduct of dredging is using that material to mitigate erosion,” Hatchey said, but the Corps’ driving mission is to maintain waterways deep enough for boats to navigate, and “our dredging need doesn’t necessarily change with water levels.” 

In New Buffalo, where dredging was last conducted in 2019, residents have formed a nonprofit called the New Buffalo Shoreline Alliance to advocate for more.

“(The dredged sand) is not nearly enough to make up for the sand that’s being lost,” said Ron Watson, president of the Sunset Shores Property Owners Association and secretary of the New Buffalo Shoreline Alliance. 

The phenomenon, which appears throughout the Great Lakes where human-made structures jut out into the water, is visible in aerial photos of New Buffalo and other harbor communities. On one side of the harbor, the beach is a wide expanse. On the other, there is virtually no beach — just waves crashing against seawalls and stone revetments that homeowners have installed to combat erosion. 

“If you walk off the rocks in front of my house, you’re in four feet of water instantly,” said Ted Grzywacz, president of the shoreline alliance.

It’s a common theme anywhere hard structures alter the Great Lakes’ natural processes, said Guy Meadows, director of the Marine Engineering Laboratory at Michigan Technological University’s Great Lakes Research Center.

“With revetments and harbors and break walls and nuclear power plants, and every kind of infrastructure you can imagine that we’ve built along the shoreline, we have shut off that supply of sand,” Meadow said. The only solution, he said, is to remove the structure that’s blocking sediment flow, or to physically transport sand to the other side.

Desperate to save their homes, New Buffalo residents have collectively spent millions of dollars reinforcing their shorelines with armoring such as seawalls, Watson said. Despite that effort, he said, at least one local homeowner has been forced to demolish their home lest it collapse into the lake. 

Heit, who has been working with the Corps and area residents to find a solution, said there is no dispute that the Corps’ harbor has damaged the beach.

“They know they caused it,” she said.

But Corps officials say the culprit is not quite that clear. They’re conducting a study to determine whether and how the harbor is affecting downstream beaches, said Zager. He said the Corps cannot seek federal money to add more sand to New Buffalo’s beach unless that study determines the harbor is to blame. 

But Watson is worried his neighbors may not time to wait for a study — their homes are in danger now. 

“We’re not pleased with the sense of urgency,” he said. 

Zager, of the Army Corps, noted that the Lake Michigan shoreline is naturally eroding over time, and the harbor’s impact must be considered along with other things, including the revetments homeowners have installed to protect their homes. Scientists say hard armoring structures also worsen erosion.

As it negotiates with the Corps, the group of New Buffalo homeowners is working with state and federal lawmakers to pursue government funding for beach nourishment and other erosion-control measures, and ease the pathway for homeowners to conduct their own renourishment projects.

Sen. Kim LaSata, R-Bainbridge Township, introduced a bill last month that would create a new state permit category for property owners who want to add sand to the beach on their property.

The goal, she said, is to “reduce red tape” for homeowners who want an alternative to seawalls and boulder revetments. 

And at the federal level, Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, has advocated for money to pay for sand in New Buffalo. 

New Buffalo is not the only Lake Michigan community where residents and local officials are seeking such a fix. In St. Joseph, where the Army Corps was scheduled this year to dredge the local harbor, the city commission voted in May to spend $66,000 to dredge an extra 7,375 cubic yards of sand — in addition to the 36,600 cubic yard the Corps already planned to dredge — and place it on the local beach.

City Manager John Hodgson said local officials there are also exploring the idea of importing sand onto the beach from offshore, but “it’s going to be expensive” and it’s not yet clear where the city would get the money.

But while efforts to bolster beaches with offsite sand are understandable stopgap solutions for communities struggling with rapid erosion along the Great Lakes, they present problems of their own, said Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes. Most notably, they are not permanent solutions, so communities must come up with money to repeatedly truck in more sand as the waves wash it away. 

Long-term, Brammeier said, “what we really need to do is have the conversation and write the plans and do the work to restore natural beaches, so the next time lake levels come up, we’re not just doing emergency nourishment.”

That, he said, would mean not only adding sand to developed beaches, but replacing shoreline development with large-scale dune landscapes where sand can move freely along the shoreline.

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Comments

Anonymous
Fri, 07/17/2020 - 8:59am

What good is just continually replacing sand? After you replace the sand, plant deep-rooted beach grass to stabilize it! Would closing the harbor help restore the original beach? What about temporary diversion of water to places in need, like California? I know, very controversial, but I said temporary. We are in a crisis.

Chas Wins
Fri, 07/17/2020 - 9:15am

“...the far Southeastern Michigan town of New Buffalo”
Easy mistake, needs fixing. Residents would be surprised to find themselves next to Detroit!

Anonymous
Fri, 07/17/2020 - 12:21pm

High water isn't just a problem on the Great Lakes — it's occurring throughout inland Michigan with swollen rivers, lakes and streams and soil that for months this spring and summer was so saturated, any rain had nowhere to go. And those are often tougher situations to resolve, Sanders said.

"On the lake shore, we kind of know what the options are: you either need to move the home or the infrastructure, or you need some type of hard armor to protect it," he said. "But when you talk about draining off surface water inland, that water has to go somewhere. And right now, there aren't a lot of places to put it where you're not harming someone else or causing a flood.

"These projects can be very complicated, and unfortunately, they can be very expensive for the residents."

https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/2020/07/17/great-lakes-w...

Some people think this only affects "rich" people, but a lot of public owned parks, recreation areas, and municipal streets, bridges, and septic systems are also adversely affected. If there is enough permanent erosion, large parts of our relatively flat state could become or return to mosquito-infected swampland.

A Yooper
Fri, 07/17/2020 - 12:24pm

The issue with shoreline erosion is wave action pounding the shorelines. Reducing this action can stop this erosion.
We built a home on the north shore of Little Bay de Noc in 1950, and we used to see Great Blue Herons, carp, frogs, tons of minnows, ducks, etc., in these rushes until we cut them all down. Now the current owner and all their neighbors on either side have placed huge boulders along their shores over 40 years ago and can no longer access their beach to swim. They have no beaches any longer.
The common three square bulrush is a natural aquatic plant which acts as a buffer from high waves along shorelines. And they can be seen along shorelines in undisturbed areas….e.g., those which have not been removed by people who wish to have vegetation clear areas for swimming. These plants are long and triangular shaped and rise to about 4-6 feet above the water.
One can witness their effectiveness firsthand along shorelines where they are still in place during high winds and waves.
Their cultivation: The preference is full or partial sun, wet conditions (including shallow water up to 6" deep), and soil containing sandy loam, silty clay, or gravelly material. This plant can withstand flooded conditions with water up to 2' deep for temporary periods of time, and it can withstand periods of drought when the soil is merely moist, rather than wet. Because of its tough rhizomes and stout stems, a limited amount of wave action and gusts of wind are tolerated. It is easiest to propagate this plant by division of its rhizomes. And, there must be a lot of them planted. It would still be cheaper than having huge boulders placed along the shore, plus the damage to shorelines, yards and landscaping from the heavy equipment would be awful. Stop gap measures as a short term alternative to give the plants time to grow are available. Here is a great site for the plant:
https://www.minnesotawildflowers.info/grass-sedge-rush/three-square-bulrush
And you can purchase them here: https://shop.plantsofthewild.com/Three-square-Bulrush_c135.htm
Trees which died from the shoreline erosion and which fall into the Lake should be left there to slow down the waver action as well, plus they provide habitat for fish.

Arjay
Fri, 07/17/2020 - 12:44pm

Beach renourishment is not a permanent solution. What is added today will wash away in 5 to 10 years due to the same natural erosion that took away the beach today. And the process is not inexpensive. It may work on public areas where there is a tourism tax on things like hotel rooms and restaurant meals, and a dedication of that tax to beach maintenance. Florida is one such instance where many of the beaches are world class rated and tourism is a vital industry. But does the average person want to see tax money spent to save private property that probably should not have been built in a location where the beach or dune will eventually erode?

Anonymous
Sat, 07/18/2020 - 12:06am

YES

Ken Schmidt
Sun, 07/19/2020 - 2:32pm

Kelly House, I’ve read all of your articles in this series. Though not pleasant to read (the lakeshore situation is alarming and depressing), your coverage of the subject and excellent journalism are appreciated.

Nancy
Mon, 08/03/2020 - 9:26am

This has also happened in the Caseville area (Thumb). When the Army Corps of Engineers decided that a new breakwall was to be installed in the harbor there in the 1960's, it changed the flow of the water and people on Sand Point were affected by having super-deep water or super shallow.

Ron Watson
Mon, 08/03/2020 - 11:15am

The New Buffalo erosion issue is well understood. The harbor blocks the majority of the sand resulting in sand “ starvation “ south of the harbor. The ACOE knew this would happen when they built it in 1975 and developed a sand mitigation plan . They provided sand periodically for about 20 years and we had wide beaches south of the harbor. They stopped nourishment in 1995 and severe erosion resulted independent of lake levels ( higher levels exacerbate erosion but are not the cause). Our position on Lake Michigan results in very large high energy waves ( > 300 miles of fetch) that hit the shoreline at damaging angles. The sand starvation south of the harbor has resulted in a vary steepened lake bottom so the wave energy on shore is immense requiring residents to install mostly large stone revetments. Many homes would have been lost without these stone revetments. This was not an option for anyone who wanted to save their home.
The cities water intake station required a large stone revetment be installed (ACOE) to protect if from serious erosion. Several studies have been done over the years including one by the ACOE and the recommendation is to install offshore underwater break walls with sand nourishment. Erosion issues are usually site specific and given our specific conditions many of the “soft” solutions ( sea grass, sand nourishment only, etc.) are not viable solutions. Offshore underwater break walls with sand nourishment is the recommended solution.