SOUTH HAVEN — When Jim Hettinger of Douglas looks up and down the Lake Michigan shoreline these days he doesn’t like what he sees.
“People are losing everything along the lakeshore,” said Hettinger, who is a board of director for the Great Lakes Coalition for Shoreline Preservation. “Pictures that we receive are heartbreaking.”
Closer to home in South Haven, lakeshore homeowners are suffering their own heartaches as they watch the beaches and bluffs in front of their properties wash away.
Keith and Anne Moffat are one such couple wondering how to deal with the ongoing erosion. It’s not their home they’re worried about – “the house was well set back,” Anne Moffat said – but their bluff.
“Much of the soil, vegetation and riprap has been carried away,” Anne said.
When the Moffats moved to their lakefront home 13 years ago, riprap consisting of loosely fitting concrete block and broken concrete, had been laid at the shoreline to serve as a protection for the bluff.
But now much of the riprap is under water and the area near the top of the bluff has become unstable.
“This destabilization has created a landslide situation at the top of the bluff, which has encroached more than ten feet into the former bluff edge property line at the top of the bluff,” noted Bradley Kotrba of Williams & Works in a memo to the South Haven Harbor Commission this month.
The Moffats hope the harbor commission and city planning commission will allow them to have contractors temporarily stabilize the existing riprap by adding 500 tons of additional armor stone within the existing armor stone structure, to shore up the shoreline area where the bluff edge has recessed and slumped. The Moffats will then have to seek approval from the state for a permanent solution next year.
The prospect of protecting their 38 feet of shoreline and bluff will carry a hefty price tab, according to Anne Moffat.
“It will be costly but we don’t have solid cost estimates yet,” she said. “Our current home insurance is unlikely to cover it.”
Another South Haven resident is also is concerned about the future of lakeshore homes that line Lakeshore Drive near North Beach.
“I’m building a house on the beach and Lake Michigan seems to be coming closer to my front yard every time (there’s rough waters),” Larry Hollenbeck told South Haven City Council members earlier this week. “Ten more inches of water next year is not going to be pretty,” he went on to say, referring to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers predictions that Lake Michigan water levels are expected to continue rising in 2020.
It’s not just homeowners feeling the adverse effects of Lake Michigan’s high water level.
“Lakeshore cities are being affected by it,” said Hettinger, who has been an economic development consultant in Michigan for 40 years. “You’ll have diminished attractiveness for tourism.” Shoreline towns, he went on to say, also are expected to bear the brunt of expenses related to water-related amenities for both residents and tourists, such as marinas.
“In South Haven the city has 250 slips that are subject to destruction from (the upcoming winter) snow melt,” Hettinger said.
The high water this past summer definitely concerned boaters using South Haven’s municipal marinas.
Their responses to end-of-the-season surveys said it all:
• “The surges and the high water levels coming in off the lake are a real challenge,” one boater wrote. “I know you can’t control Mother Nature, but this is the hardest thing to manage within the marina.”
• “I really think the City of South Haven needs to think about floating docks and increasing the height of the pilings,” noted another survey response. “If boaters cannot reach their boats due to high lake levels, the City will lose substantial revenue.”
Boaters’ concerns are not lost on harbor commissioners. On Tuesday members discussed the high water levels and ensuring the safety of boaters, as well as the upkeep of the marinas.
Commissioners are considering updating marina policies to include a provision giving the city the right to close the marinas and/or turn off electrical facilities when high-water events occur that could threaten the safety of marina patrons.
“We are still crafting those policies and nothing has been approved at this time,” Harbor Master and Assistant City Manager Kate Hosier said. “If the prediction of 11 additional inches of water by next July is correct, then yes, some of our docks will be underwater and unusable.”
There could be a solution to the high water issues on the Great Lakes, according to Hettinger and the Great Lakes Coalition.
“We think the International Joint Commission could do a better job of managing water flow,” he said.
The Joint Commission, based in Washington, D.C., is in charge of regulating water flow in and out of the Great Lakes. They can divert water from rivers, canals and waterways that either flow into or out of the Great Lakes.
The commission has over time taken a number of measures to divert water to or from the Great Lakes to manage water levels during crisis situations.
Right now, for instance, the Long Lac and Ogoki Rivers in Canada are being diverted into Lake Superior. But the Great Lakes Coalition thinks the Joint Commission should restore the rivers to their original flow channels to Hudson Bay, so that the water level in Lake Superior can go down to a more manageable level. Doing so would also reduce the water levels in lakes Michigan and Huron.