ST. JOSEPH — There are a lot of big fish out there that can help with shoreline erosion protection, Berrien County Commissioner Ezra Scott told St. Joseph residents and others Saturday, at a discussion called by the Below the Bluff Neighborhood Association.
You just have to know where to put your line in the water, said Scott, who has assisted New Buffalo area residents with their own erosion problems.
“It’s not what you know, but who you know and who you contact,” said Scott, who has reached out to numerous officials in the federal and state governments and helped secure funding to fight erosion.
Jack Sanderson, a Lions Park Drive resident and chairman of the Below the Bluff group, said the gathering was organized because the water in Lake Michigan is at record levels. The high water has swamped the beaches and the waves are eating away at the bluff, threatening homes.
The high water is not confined to Lake Michigan or Berrien County, added Claren Schweitzer, with the Below the Bluff group.
“It’s not just a community issue, it’s a Great Lakes issue,” said Schweitzer to about 50 people who attended, including residents from Stevensville and other locations.
Property owners south of the New Buffalo pier are threatened with continuing erosion because the pier blocks sand from accumulating along their shore. The area’s water treatment plant is also teetering on the edge.
“It saddens me that residents are spending millions of dollars to keep their homes from falling into the lake,” which is the admitted fault of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Scott said.
Scott, first elected to represent District 9 in 2016, said he first began digging into the issue during a conference for Michigan county officials at the White House in 2017. He met the executive director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, a White House liaison, and later the acting Secretary of the Army at the Pentagon, and the head of the Army Corps of Engineers’ Great Lakes region, who visited New Buffalo.
He also has been in contact with Michigan’s governor’s office, the Department of Environmental Quality and the Department of Natural Resources.
New Buffalo residents are trying to tap into funding from the Great Lakes Fisheries Restoration program, a source few people even know about, Scott said. “We went from saving beaches to creating a fish habitat. We’re environmentalists.”
The proposal is to construct an artificial reef with large boulders about 300 feet off shore. The rocks would break up the waves before they reach shore, and keep sand from being dragged away, Scott explained.
That project is “in limbo” while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Michigan’s DEQ and DNR work on the design that is conducive to the fish habitat, Scott said.
The New Buffalo Shoreline Association has been awarded $100,000 for a study of the sand flow around the harbor, and $275,000 for harbor dredging.
Scott said that U.S. Rep. Fred Upton’s office has been “instrumental” in the progress that has been made, and that D.C. officials have been responsive.
“The ‘no’ is not there anymore,” Scott said. “That’s a huge step.”
There are other possible solutions besides a seawall, Scott suggested. One would be pumping sand that has washed into the lake back onto the beach, but that is opposed by state environmental officials.
Another idea for New Buffalo’s pier would be to “just rip the damn thing out,” but that is not a viable solution, either, he conceded.
Scott thinks the Great Lakes Fisheries Restoration program is the best pool that St. Joseph residents could dip into. He said the community could apply for as much as $10 million.
Some St. Joseph lakeside residents remember decades ago when the Army Corps of Engineers did dump materials into the water to break up waves.
Scott even proposed that every shoreline property owner from the state line to South Haven chip in and buy their own dredging machine to replenish beaches.
Dredging and sand replacement in Michigan is conducted by the Corps of Engineers with federal money. Scott said that Indiana is starting its own sand replacement efforts.
St. Joseph Mayor Mike Garey said City Manager John Hodgson has the idea of pumping sand into the lake to create sand bars that will reduce the power of waves hitting the shore.
Residents pointed out that some of these are just temporary solutions, and that getting permits for an offshore breakwall takes a long time, if it is ever allowed.
Scott admitted that there is no “silver bullet” when it comes to shoreline issues.
Scientists are projecting that, after this year’s record levels, that the lakes should drop over the next seven years, he said. That is the time to find solutions, before levels rise again, Scott insisted.
Mayor Garey said city commissioners will be holding public work sessions in August to discuss shoreline issues.
The meeting’s organizers were encouraged by the turn-out by people from all over.
“It’s a start,” Sanderson said. “There is a lot of interest, and a lot of concern.”
Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak