Michigan’s coast is being armored with seawalls, making erosion worse

The property of Wendy Slade and Peter Davidson on Lake Michigan's Cathead Bay has suffered severe erosion as the lake registers record-high water levels, prompting the pair to armor their shoreline with a boulder revetment. (Bridge photo by John Russell)

Wendy Slade loved to take in the sights and sounds of Lake Michigan from her beach house on Cathead Bay, until the lake began to turn against her.

Over several consecutive springs of heavy rainfall, Slade and her partner, Peter Davidson, watched the sprawling beach disappear from their property near the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula. Massive storm surges battered the remaining shoreline last winter and into the spring, uprooting trees and knocking chunks of their front yard into the water.

“Who could believe this big, beautiful blue pond would turn into a land-eating monster?” Slade said. “The beach became something I hated.”

Related:

Desperate to halt the erosion, Slade and Davidson hired a contractor to install a boulder barrier along their shoreline. With the roughly $200,000 project completed this month, the pair hope they can again enjoy their dream home, instead of worrying it might collapse into the lake.

They are among more than a thousand Michigan property owners who have secured state permits to protect their Great Lakes shoreline this year, desperate for a reprieve from the rapid erosion that has accompanied record-high water levels throughout the Great Lakes.

Wendy Slade and Peter Davidson pose for a photo outside their home on Lake Michigan's Cathead Bay. (Bridge photo by John Russell)

Since October, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy has approved 1,771 permit applications for shoreline protection projects, a dramatic increase over previous years that reflects the scope of the crisis facing shoreline homeowners, as well as efforts by regulators to speed up the permitting process as landowners race to save their properties.

But as the seawalls and boulders multiply on Michigan’s shorelines, scientists and state officials warn that the emergency measures meant to protect homes will bear significant long-term consequences for both lakeshore property owners and the public with whom they share Michigan’s beaches. 

Hard shoreline barriers interrupt the Great Lakes’ natural processes in ways that worsen erosion over time. While so-called “revetments” such as seawalls and riprap — armoring typically composed of boulders stacked along the shore — certainly provide short-term relief, they are ultimately doomed to fail. 

“It pains me,” said Guy Meadows, director of the Marine Engineering Laboratory at Michigan Technological University’s Great Lakes Research Center. “People build a revetment, it does not hold up, and they will build a bigger revetment, and an even bigger revetment, until the cost of the revetment exceeds the value of the property.”

A force of nature

Meadows has been studying these cycles for decades. In that time, he has learned that even the sturdiest seawall will eventually succumb to the lake. And in the meantime, it will alter natural systems in a way that can worsen erosion, downdrift and onsite, sometimes pulling sand so far out into the lake that it can never wash ashore again.

As relatively young geological features, the Great Lakes are “steep and deep,” Meadows said. The lakes are gradually growing shallower and wider by chipping away at the surrounding land. West Michigan, for instance, loses an average of a foot a year to Lake Michigan’s waves, he said. 

But the lakes’ march inward isn’t steady. It happens in cycles. 

A crew from Easling Construction placed tons of rock to protect Wendy Slade and Peter Davidson’s property from Lake Michigan’s waves. While such revetments provide short-term relief, scientists warn they ultimately worsen erosion. (Bridge photo by John Russell)

During periods of high water and stormy conditions, the lakes attack the shoreline more aggressively. As the waters recede, they often deposit sand back onshore, partially replacing what's been lost. 

Seawalls and riprap disrupt that process. When waves encounter such obstacles, they redirect their energy to pull greater quantities of sand from neighboring beaches, or scour it out from underneath the armor.

“The places that don’t have armoring have to provide the total amount of sediment that the waves are capable of carrying away,” Meadows said. 

In some cases, the sand is lost forever. Without a gradually sloping shoreline where the waves can deposit sand as they recede, sand is pulled out to ever-greater depths, where the force of incoming waves is too weak to carry it back ashore. 

Jerrod Sanders, assistant director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy’s water resources division, said state officials who review applications for shoreline reinforcement are aware of these dynamics. But he said they must balance such concerns against private property rights that underpin homeowners’ efforts to save their home. 

“They may have built too close to the shoreline, but if they built there legally...we do need to arrive at some alternative to protect them,” Sanders said. 

Sanders said when state officials approve shoreline armoring projects, they require construction crews to minimize erosion impacts on neighboring properties, such as by often rejecting vertical seawalls for less-harmful sloping rock revetments. They also recommend that property owners create a maintenance budget for when the lakes inevitably breach their shoreline armor.

“You’re building a structure in one of the most inhospitable places on the planet,” Sanders said. “To paraphrase one of the shoreline engineers we work with, basically the only thing you can guarantee is that they’re eventually going to fail.”

Guy Meadows (Courtesy of Michigan Technological University)

Disputes on the rise

With greater armoring comes greater conflict. As the seawalls and riprap proliferate, neighbor-to-neighbor disputes are cropping up in coastal communities, especially along Lake Michigan, whose sandy bluffs are prone to erosion.

Conflict often arises when landowners suspect their neighbors’ revetment is worsening erosion on their property.

That’s what Trish LaPorte contends. When she and her husband purchased a home on shore of Little Traverse Bay, they were smitten with the cobblestone beach where their children could collect Petoskey stones.

Then the neighbors commissioned a boulder revetment that LaPorte said has hastened erosion along her strip of beach. She complained to the construction crews who built the revetment, she said, and they offered to extend it onto her property. She accepted. 

But as winter storms crashed ashore, she said, the revetment began to crumble and the erosion worsened. She blames sloppy construction and a state and federal permitting system that she believes is too quick to greenlight hard armoring without adequately considering impacts to neighboring properties.

"I’m talking about big boulders that just fell apart,” LaPorte said. “I can’t even walk out there anymore because it’s so dangerous.”

The neighbor, Irv Levy, argues his shoreline armor is not to blame. Erosion was underway before the revetment was built, Levy said, and recent spring storms have further battered the shoreline. Plus, he said, he couldn’t just sit and watch the lake claim his home. 

“We had to do something,” Levy said. 

In West Olive, on the central coast, a group of homeowners sued their neighbors over plans to build a seawall to stop their homes from toppling over a bluff, arguing the wall would destroy their shared beach. A judge ruled that the construction could proceed.

In New Buffalo, homeowners blame erosion along their properties on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which built an upstream harbor that blocks the natural movement of sand down the beach.

In Chikaming Township, concerns about the proliferation of shoreline revetments raised such concern among area residents, the township board hired an engineering firm to evaluate proposed shoreline armoring projects that could impact township property. 

Township Supervisor David Bunte said local officials are considering more permanent solutions, such as limiting when and how residents can armor the shoreline.

Bunte said he feels for people whose homes are at risk, but worries that as revetments hasten erosion on neighboring properties, they will force a chain reaction of armoring throughout the township.

That would transform beaches into boulder fields, he said, harming Chikaming Township’s tourism-dependent economy by making beachwalking “almost impossible.”

“It could be catastrophic, from an economic standpoint,” Bunte said.

Seeking ‘softer’ solutions

As anxiety grows about the consequences of armoring Michigan’s shoreline, some groups are working to promote alternative solutions.

Petoskey’s Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council began hosting webinars to show property owners about how they can move homes away from the water or reject hard armoring in favor of “bioengineering” techniques such as using deep-rooted plants to help hold soil in place.

Jennifer McKay, the watershed council’s policy director, hopes more landowners will consider such “softer” solutions. While bioengineered erosion control won’t work in every situation, McKay said it can be a cheaper and more natural-looking alternative to hard armoring.

Lana Pollack, a former state senator who later went on to lead the Michigan Environmental Council and chair the U.S. section of the International Joint Commission, an agency that manages waterways bordering the U.S. and Canada, knows from professional experience that it’s tough to engineer a way out of problems caused by Great Lakes water levels. 

So when erosion began threatening her family’s Mason County beach home, Pollack started looking for a compromise. She settled on a plan to line the shore with long, sand-filled fabric tubes, which she hopes will curb erosion until lake levels decline. When the water recedes, Pollock will tear open the fabric and leave the sand in-place. She hopes it will give the beach a chance to recover. 

“I don’t want to have to scramble over rocks,” Pollack said. “I want the dunecrest to come back. I want the natural beach, and this gives the natural beach a chance at life.”

But McKay, of the watershed council, said efforts to avoid hard armoring shouldn’t be solely a matter of landowner preference. The council is working with local public officials to encourage policies that prevent homeowners from building so close to the shore, and lobbying state regulators to adopt permitting practices that prioritize alternatives to hard armoring.

“The state has a role and a duty under their statutes and the constitution to protect the Great Lakes,” McKay said. “So in our opinion, they should be talking to the applicant and encouraging what is best for the Great Lakes, rather than just reviewing and permitting whatever the applicant wants.”

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Comments

Marvin
Fri, 07/17/2020 - 8:38am

While this is good reporting, it is not news to hydrologists and those who study shoreline erosion. We have known for decades that "hard" barriers (riprap, seawalls, jettys, etc) cause more harm than good, long term.

The problem is that often the negative effects do not show up during the tenure of the property owner who installs them, so the effects are not seen by those responsible.

Plus, of course, the MDEGLE will permit anything.

Vince Caruso
Fri, 07/17/2020 - 8:41am

The shoreline is part of Michigan law that states that the beaches, to the ordinary high water line, are part of the Public Trust. That is why we can walk and swim along any beach on the Great Lakes in Michigan, contrary to some homeowners along the beach. Ignore them when they try to "kick you off" "their beach" next to their homes or businesses.
When people "armor" the beach they are violating the Public Trust and it should not be allowed.
The homeowners are affecting current and future beach conditions that should not be allowed.
Moving away from the beach should be the solution not violating the Public Trust of Michigan.

middle of the mit
Fri, 07/17/2020 - 8:03pm

Slightly off topic, but fits with your comment.

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/rich-people-own-rivers-new-mexico_n_5ed90...

[[[When Dan Perry moved from Texas to 1,500 acres in the arid reaches of northern New Mexico in 2010, the portion of the Rio Chama that ran through his property was contaminated with pollutants from the wastewater treatment plant upstream. The banks were eroded, so shade trees and shrubs no longer kept the river cool enough for rainbow and brown trout. Perry invested over $300,000 of his own money in engineer-designed erosion treatment, planting willows and alders, and restoring the natural course of the river. He worked with the governor to secure $8 million for a cleanup project. Now, the once-deteriorated stretch is a thriving fishery.

While investing private money to restore public resources isn’t a new concept, Perry took it a step further. He now effectively owns this portion of the Rio Chama, thanks to a controversial state regulation approved in December 2017 that allows residents to certify portions of streambed as private property, denying the public access to some public waterways that run through their land and shutting out people from fishing or boating there.

To Perry, this is protecting his investment in natural resource restoration. But to environmental activists and local anglers and boaters, it sets a dangerous precedent, portending a future in which wealthy landowners seize control of public lands ― and with it, the power to decide who gets access to nature and who doesn’t.]]]

This person seems to have forgotten that he got $8 million from the taxpayers.

Hopefully this doesn't come here.

Anonymous
Fri, 07/17/2020 - 8:49am

A state-wide comprehensive plan would be best. Encourage volunteers to plant deep-rooted beach grass.

Margaret R Bennett
Fri, 07/17/2020 - 9:13am

Many of the people who own property along the Great Lakes are truly selfish. They try to keep other Michiganders from even walking along the beach near the water! This is against the laws of the state.
Having seen lots of signs on properties even NEAR Lake Michigan asking people to "Please respect out privacy', which mean "Don't enjoy the Lakes; they are only for us who are fortunate enough to BUY property near them!'.

The selfishness of people will be the end of the world, if we don't start respecting each other.
It seems that 'having more than others' is an important--maybe the MOST important--focus of many people. {We cannot keep having this as our most important focus if we want to SAVE Planet Earth!]

Joel
Sat, 07/18/2020 - 9:42am

Having lived along Lake Michigan and now the Sunrise Side, I'd like readers to know that like everything else in life, one should not make sweeping generalizations. While Lakes Michigan and Huron are essentially considered one water body with respect to water level, their Michigan shorelines and shoreline owners are remarkably different. Having lived in Leelanau but recreated up and down the Lake Michigan coast, I too was disheartened by shoreline owners posting signs, building fences, and otherwise being belligerent toward beach walkers. I've not experienced that mentality here on the East Coast.

Personally, I enjoy seeing kids and families walking along our beach and thankful that my grandkids can walk the beach of others without being hassled. And, I am pleased to see nearby beach resorts filled with families. That brings money into our rural community and hopefully breeds a generation that appreciates our Great Lakes to help protect them for future generations.

Anonymous
Sat, 07/18/2020 - 2:24pm

Some, I don't know about many. Keep in mind that many people walking the beach leave trash.

Roger Cargill
Sun, 07/19/2020 - 12:46am

Many but still the minority

Steve Williams
Fri, 07/17/2020 - 11:32am

Every time this happens we get people claiming to not believe it could happen.

Did they get insurance? They found out they couldn't get it. Wonder what the insurance companies know? Too much risk for them. This should be a big red flag.

Listen to Dr. Guy Meadows an expert on the topic. Erosion is a relentless process and doesn't happen uniformly over time or location. Also DNR allowing people to protect their property in a way that is detrimental to their neighbors is unconscionable.

And lastly, people with shoreline property looking to the rest of us to help pay for their problem is disgusting self centeredness. Which of them is going to chip in when my furnace needs replacing?

Joel
Sat, 07/18/2020 - 9:03am

As a Great Lakes shoreline property owner, I am the one disgusted by the narrow minded response and accusations. "Every time this happens" has never happened in our lifetimes. I bought during historical low water levels and now less than 10 years later dealing with record highs. Unprecedented. And, I'm not looking for anyone to help me pay for remediation. Mr. Williams should note that riparian owners like me pay a disproportionate share of property taxes supporting local schools and infrastructure,. Additionally, the resorts, beaches and parks create community wealth and at a minimum, seasonal employment opportunities for our youth.

middle of the mit
Mon, 07/20/2020 - 10:48am

Joel,

This may not have happened in your lifetime, but 1986 was in my lifetime. And it isn't like it hasn't happened in other states or countries. And it isn't like people don't know about things of this nature.

And why do lake front owners think they pay a disproportionate tax more than anyone else pays? Your property is worth more, so you pay more in taxes. Just like someone with a $100,000 house on 5 acres pays more than someone who lives on a small lot with a $40,000 house. It is totally proportional to the amount your property is worth.

Please stop acting as if you are being fleeced by those who don't own property that has the same value. It is unbecoming.

10x25mm
Fri, 07/17/2020 - 11:45am

The MSU Extension has a lot of information available on smart lakeshore plants which actually protect shorelines. The scalped shorelines popular with the wine and brie set eat shoreline houses for lunch. A good coastal marsh, on the other hand, is forever.

Mark Whalen
Fri, 07/17/2020 - 2:48pm

No human-built infrastructure is permanent. Skyscrapers, homes, fences seawalls etc etc. It must be at some point refreshed in our natural battle against the elements of nature. Do an article on how we benefit from seawalls in cities like Detroit', Chicago', New York. And show how those seawalls are permanently damaging to nature ? Otherwise, we might get the wrong idea that this was a hit piece on private seawall owners, who BTW pay increased taxes to the government to buy land for public parks on the water, which requires….seawalls. It seems we've not ruined nature with millions of seawalls in world -wide use, so again what was this piece about really? Have's vs havent's? Its good to keep in mind that "mother" nature wouldn't allow us live on this planet at all if we didn't make our own way. Try it. You need to take from nature just to breathe.

Anonymous
Sat, 07/18/2020 - 12:00am

"No human-built infrastructure is permanent." Neither is any nature built structure.

Mark Odland
Fri, 07/17/2020 - 6:13pm

The “experts” offer an unfounded opinion about revetments. A well constructed revetment includes strong engineering to protect the homeowner, neighboring properties, the environment and the public. Balance is the key.

I also challenge the experts about sand loss from revetments. The assertion in this article is that sand loss as a result of revetments is permanent. Baloney! When the lake recedes, the sand returns. Don’t buy this false, unscientific, unproven narrative. Look at the facts over time and you will see sand loss during high water, and natural sand renourishment as the water recedes.

Finally, look at what has happened over the years when as a last ditch effort to save property, wrecked car bodies, truck frames, airplane tires, car tires, engine blocks, steel barrels filled with concrete, concrete sewer tiles, and long stretches of concrete streets that were being replaced were dumped over hundreds of miles of shoreline in Michigan and elsewhere. What a mess our beautiful shoreline became that blocked the public from using many areas of the beach. The authors failed to account for why that happened, its impact and the fact professionally engineered and constructed revetments are good for all parties.

Come on Bridge, you can do better.

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

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.

CharlieD
Sat, 07/18/2020 - 5:49pm

The funny thing is that if these homewoners would have simply looked at historical records, they would have known this was inevitable. I see these houses perched on the edge of the lake and wonder what county in their right mind would have ever approved these building plans. Let the homeowners suffer so that future generations learn a lesson. Don't build your house on a sandy cliff next to a constantly evolving shoreline. Common sense.

John Grimes
Sat, 07/18/2020 - 6:23pm

I have been a" waterman" my whole life I grew up on the shores of Lake Erie in LaSalle Mi. Back in the 50s and 60s In Grandview andNorth Shores every lake front home had a" Groyne" or in plain english a perpendicular to the shore short thin wall that extends out in to the lake 50 to 75 feet and were two ft high at the shore and I ft above the water in the lake .There were many different materials some concrete, some steel pile. A few wood and they all worked as intended . Waves very rarely strike the shore straight on and allowing the wave to break over the wall resulted in the wave losing enough energy that it can't carry as much sand. If I owned lake front home ( I don't)I would build a Groyne out of 4in pipe20 ft long and jet or vibrate them in to form wall with 4in spacing so 2pipes would cover1ft out into the lake as far as the corp of engineers would let me. the ice will eventually take it but by then the lakes levels will be lower .

Roger Cargill
Sun, 07/19/2020 - 12:43am

1712 owners that obeyed the rules and just as many that did the work without permits without any repercussion from the state.

Jake K
Sun, 07/19/2020 - 1:46pm

Ahhh, Mother Nature. Short term “solutions” for long term irrevocable natural activities? Perpetual naivety?

John Chastain
Mon, 07/20/2020 - 9:19am

What we are really talking about here is our tendency to ignore reality where we build our society. So we build in fire zones, we build and install water reliant landscaping in drought prone areas and deserts, we build in flood planes, hurricane zones and lake / ocean shorelines. Then forces beyond our control come in play and disrupt our homes and lives and we wonder why. Every mitigation strategy has unforeseen consequences. Disruption of natural floodplains along rivers causes greater flooding and destruction downstream. Building along the Great Lakes shoreline disrupts current flows and destroys wetlands. This aggravates flooding and damages water quality. I understand the desire to build and live in beautiful places, my family like many Michigan families has had waterfront properties. The cost of upkeep including sea walls was greater than the benefit of living there. We need to reaccess where we build and end the process of building in fragile areas and disrupting natural processes that in many ways benefit humanity as well as the environment we live in.

Mark Whalen
Wed, 07/22/2020 - 7:23pm

Seawalls allow man to borrow land from nature in order to achieve (in natural time) short-term goals. Everything we build is the same. Structures are always subject to the whims of nature and we do our best, then if the need persists we refresh the effort. This applies to everything we manufacture. We cannot live in complete harmony with nature.
As another commenter wrote in so many words. Nature itself cant remain unchanged, its the nature of nature. Humans deserve our space because nature created us. Same as dam building beavers.

zooman
Thu, 07/23/2020 - 3:40pm

Good point on 1986. Earlier this month it was reported that the level of Lakes Michigan and Huron had not yet surpassed the record set in 1986.

It seems to me that climate change has something to do with the level of damage we are seeing. Lake ice normally piles up along beaches and dunes, but we have had many mild winters lately with little or no shore ice, let alone ice far out into the lakes, at least on the Lake MIchigan side. Without this protective barrier, the shoreline now remains exposed to wind and waves for three or four months when previously it has had the benefit of an icy shield.

margaret szypulski
Sat, 07/25/2020 - 12:00pm

Wrong. It HAS surpassed the levels of 1986. Google it!

A Yooper
Mon, 08/03/2020 - 2:23pm

The issue with shoreline erosion is wave action pounding the shorelines. Reducing this action can reduce this erosion, dramatically in specific shorelines.
We built a home on the north shore of Little Bay de Noc in 1950, and we use to see Great Blue Herons, carp, frogs, tons of minnows, ducks, etc., in the 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 and habitat is gone.
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. These are the ones we cut down.
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.