Emergency measures permitted for Lake Michigan erosion

Rising water levels and bluff failures along Wisconsin's Lake Michigan shoreline are creating a serious threat to private property and public utilities in a number of communities.

Among the hardest hit areas is the village of Mount Pleasant in Racine County, where the erosion has put several homes in jeopardy and could potentially threaten a water main and other public utilities if the situation deteriorates.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, at the request of Gov. Scott Walker, is working cooperatively with the state Department of Administration and other state and local entities to support the community and property owners elsewhere on the coast with expedited review of emergency stabilization measures for the bluff.

Placing heavy, stable material such as large, natural rock at the bottom or "toe" of the bluff can help protect that area from wave erosion.

Managing the water at the top of the bluff through techniques such as directing downspouts to drain water away from the area also can play an important role in keeping the bluff stable.

A variety of factors may contribute to bluff erosion including surface water runoff, groundwater, bluff material and slope.

“In urgent situations, the department is allowing the temporary placement of materials at the bottom of the bluff under easy-to-follow conditions while the property owner seeks approval for a permanent solution,” said DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp.

“The DNR is prepared to do everything within its statutory authority to allow property owners to stabilize the bluff, prevent further erosion and protect safety and property.”

Homeowners seeking to take emergency action must:

Submit a brief written request to the department describing the plan to place temporary emergency materials at the bluff toe to reduce erosion for protection of a structure or infrastructure;

Identify where the temporary material will be placed; provide information about the type and amount of material that will be used; and explain how the temporary material will be placed.

One of the conditions for emergency approval requires landowners to actively work toward planning, designing and implementing a permanent shoreline protection solution through the state Chapter 30 permit process, said Martye Griffin, DNR's statewide waterway science and policy leader.

Once DNR receives the emergency request, a letter authorizing the placement of temporary structures will be sent and once received, the landowner can proceed with the temporary measures.

Property owners requesting emergency action may email Griffin at MartinP.Griffin@Wisconsin.gov.

DNR urges homeowners to use care when considering emergency work.

During high water events in previous years, some efforts to deploy broken concrete and other materials down the side of the bluff resulted in excessive weight on the sloping bluff face.

Rather than protecting the toe of the slope, this worsened erosion problems.

The Lake Michigan shoreline is a complex, dynamic environment with varying physical characteristics. In urgent situations, homeowners can choose to proceed with expedited projects but should understand the risk.

Griffin said the department recommends hiring a professional engineer to properly design shore protection structures that take into account the following:

If using rock, stone or heavy concrete, the material should consist of clean (no re-bar or metal), large, non-flat, angular, interlocking pieces;

Materials used should be of sufficient weight and size to remain in place; and

Concrete rubble and other construction site debris should NOT be used. These materials have a tendency to crack and break apart, reducing the weight of the material that is needed to resist wave forces and creating voids for the waves to erode behind the material.

Griffin also noted that if the material used for temporary protection cannot be incorporated into a final design, it may have to be removed, which may increase the costs of installing the final, permanent solution.

Steve Galarneau, director of DNR's Office of the Great Lakes, emphasized that the Great Lakes coast is a dynamic environment.

Water levels on Lake Michigan had been running well below average in the recent past, but are now up 8 inches from a year ago and up just over 4 feet from the low level reported in January 2013.

Lake levels are currently running about 16 inches above the long term average of 578.8 feet. Lake Michigan is still more than 2 feet below the record high of 582.35 feet set in October of 1986.

For details on temporary, emergency measures as well as the process for permanent structures, visit DNR.wi.gov and search "Great Lakes erosion control."

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