LAKE MICHIGAN — Historically high Lake Michigan water levels mean trouble for those who live along the lakeshore.
Some homes in Somers that were once bought to enjoy the phenomenal views of Lake Michigan are no longer livable due to the likelihood of the bluff beneath them giving way to erosion.
“As you can see it’s to the end of the street now and it used to be all the way out,” said Candy of Somers.
Candy owns a house with a lakefront view, but that wasn’t the case until just a couple of years ago when her neighbors' home that was teetering over the edge had to be carefully removed due to severe bluff erosion. Since then, Candy says two of her other neighbors along the lakefront were forced to leave their homes.
“It all depends on what the weather does,” she said.
UW Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences Associate Dean Tim Grundl said Lake Michigan water levels are nearing historic highs due to a lot of precipitation over the past two years.
“They’re 11 inches higher than last April at this time and they’re within 3 inches of the all-time record which was set in 1986,” he said.
Grundl said high lake levels are directly responsible for increased bluff erosion that can cause significant damage to structures and property while submerging beaches.
“At periods of time like this, it's a big problem,” he said.
A recent study of Wisconsin shoreline inventory along the Lake Michigan coast shows several bluffs from Manitowoc County down to Kenosha County are classified as ‘unstable or failing’. The Wisconsin Sea Grant said erosion is a particularly pressing issue in southeastern Wisconsin because the coastline is densely developed with homes and businesses.
“There’s many things you can do, none of them cheap, but there’s many things you can do to help stabilize your land or the beach itself,” he said.
Carthage College in Kenosha said it spent nearly $3.5 million last year to prevent erosion from eating away at its campus. Now that the project is done, administrators said their shoreline is safe for the next 50 to 100 years.
“I know for faculty staff and students here, we’d watch the waves come over there and see that erosion taking place, it kind of hurt every day,” said Carthage College Chief Operating Officer David Timmerman.
A massive lakeside storm in January 2020 caused Lentz Hall’s basement to flood. Timmerman said the heating and air conditioning units of the largest building on campus were wiped out costing several million dollars to replace.
“That was a major disruptor on campus, a major disruptor for students, faculty, and staff and that’s when we began looking at a longer-term plan,” he said.
Timmerman said that plan included installing massive boulders along 900 feet of shoreline last fall into winter. 20-foot-tall metal sheet pilings were also placed behind the rocks to prevent Lentz Hall from flooding again.
“If we just let it be, the risk was far, far greater,” he said.
While Carthage College was able to afford a multi-million-dollar erosion prevention project, Timmerman said they couldn’t find any local, state, or federal funds to help cover the expense.
The Wisconsin Sea Grant said the same goes for homeowners who don’t want to keep watching their property disappear.