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.