[Un]Natural Selection Ep. 2: Houses Built On Sand
When the Great Lakes swelled to record levels in 2019-2020, shoreline residents panicked. As houses sat precariously close to the water’s edge, thousands of folks applied for construction permits to “harden up”. Permanent seawalls and rock revetments were built to stabilize eroding shorelines and protect millions of dollars worth of property owners’ assets. But there’s a long-term impact to armoring the shoreline. And as it turns out, it actually exacerbates the erosion it’s meant to stop.
Credits for this episode:
Host: Morgan Springer
Producer: Dan Wanschura
Editor: Morgan Springer
Consulting Editor: Peter Payette
Music: Tea K Pea, Dr Sparkle, Podington Bear, Marlin Ledin
Logo: Erin O'Malley
DAN WANSCHURA, BYLINE: Thousands of years from now, Lake Michigan won’t really be much of a lake anymore. Instead, it’ll be more like a giant marsh.
MORGAN SPRINGER, HOST: Woah, woah, woah. How does that happen?
WANSCHURA: Ok, let me unpack this. The Great Lakes are cyclical, right? Sometimes the water levels are high– sometimes they're low. Most people living near the lakes know this.
What many people might not realize though is the Great Lakes, over time, are also widening.
SPRINGER: What do you mean by widening?
WANSCHURA: The lakes are slowly getting larger because of erosion. Researchers say it’s natural erosion, and it’s been happening on all the Great Lakes since they were formed thousands of years ago.
Take for example Lakes Michigan and Huron. On average, they’re widening by about a foot every year. As erosion eats away the shoreline, the lakes slowly get larger. And they’re also getting shallower because again over many years, erosion pulls all that sand and sediment into the water.
SPRINGER: It’s kind of like when you’re at the beach and you dig a hole and then the sides cave in so it gets wider. But as the sides cave in, they go into your little puddle and it also gets shallower. Is that what we’re talking about here on a much larger scale?
WANSCHURA: Yeah, that’s a pretty good example. It’s a moving landscape. It’s changing constantly.
And so one of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how we build permanent things on this impermanent landscape.
And today's story is about just that. About us continuing to build along the Great Lakes and the unintended consequences that come with it.
SPRINGER: From Interlochen Public Radio, this is [Un] Natural Selection. A series about tinkering with the natural world. Are we solving problems, or just making more?
I’m Morgan Springer.
WANSCHURA: And I’m Dan Wanschura. Today, Episode Two: Houses Built On Sand.
For over 60 years, Cliff Beckman has been coming to his family’s cottage on Lake Michigan.
In fact, the only thing that keeps Cliff away from Lake Michigan, is a Michigan winter. Which is why come December, Cliff and his wife head south to Missouri.
Cliff’s beach house is located in Chikaming Township, Michigan. It’s about an hour and a half drive east of Chicago, and it sits on a sand dune overlooking the lake. Cliff says it brings his family together.
CLIFF BECKMAN: We live in different parts of the country, but it’s a place we can all get together and enjoy our games, our beach activities. It’s just a family, warm, loving place.
WANSCHURA: But in 2020, it became a lot harder to enjoy this paradise. Water levels were breaking records in most of the Great Lakes.
BECKMAN: Some days when it’s this heavy storm, we can see the bottom steps disappearing.
WANSCHURA: That year, high water wiped out a 70 foot section of Cliff’s long staircase to the beach. So they couldn’t get down to the shore anymore. And that wasn’t even the first time this happened.
BECKMAN: We’ve lost three sets of stairs over the period that I’ve been going there.
WANSCHURA: Some people had it much worse. They lost huge chunks of land, others lost their homes.
(MONTAGE OF NEWS REPORTS DESCRIBING GREAT LAKES DESTRUCTION)
And so this sheer panic sets in as people realize what could happen to their properties.
SPRINGER: Yeah, I mean, if it were me I would be researching like crazy to see what I could do to protect my home.
WANSCHURA: That’s a very reporter answer, Morgan.
But right, it’s a pretty natural response. You start figuring out, ‘Ok, what can we do to protect our property.’ And for most people protecting their property meant more building.
Seawalls, huge rock revetments– which are basically boulders piled on top of each other like a puzzle.
SPRINGER: And that’s supposed to help stop erosion?
WANSCHURA: Yeah, I mean that’s the thinking is it will help stabilize the land and keep the lake from eating away more land. And that’s sort of been the solution for a while.
SPRINGER: Got it.
WANSCHURA: Now to build one of these seawalls or revetments in Michigan, you usually need permission.
So residents began flooding the state and federal government with permit requests.
To give you an idea of just how many I’m talking about here, I’m going to give you a quick rundown.
From 2016-2018, when water levels on the Great Lakes were lower, just over 1,600 shoreline construction permits were issued by the state of Michigan.
But in the following three years when water levels were high, over 3,900 permits were doled out by the state.
That’s a 144% increase.
SPRINGER: That’s a lot. That’s not nothing. Wow.
WANSCHURA: And the thing is, this sort of response happened in other Great Lakes states.
And when you think about it, It’s not hard to see how we got here, right? A lot of people love to be near water and Lake Michigan is an awesome place to be.
But we haven’t always had year-round homes on the Great Lakes. In the years following World War II, that began to change.
RICHARD NORTON: Folks started to look at the lake as a beautiful place to be aesthetically to live, not just during the summer as a summer vacation home, but as a full-time residence.
WANSCHURA: Richard Norton is a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan.
He says later on, we changed how we thought about homes. They weren’t just places to live; houses became more of a commercial enterprise.
NORTON: A lot of incentives were put into place to build bigger homes– and see them as investments, rather than building structures…for living. So that’s created a lot of expectations about how much money we should put into homes and where we can build them in a way that’s likely to maximize our return on them.
WANSCHURA: And he says that drove a lot of home construction to beautiful … but more hazardous landscapes.
(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES)
The Great Lakes have over 10-thousand miles of shoreline.
Back in Chikaming Township, they’ve got about seven of those miles. That’s the main reason people live and visit this quaint beach community.
So when residents began to harden their shoreline, and a few more sea walls and rock revetments were built, a lot of people noticed.
NICK BOGERT: I remember coming down and seeing a bulldozer and a big shovel putting the material onto the beach, and being shocked at just how much there was day after day.
WANSCHURA: Nick Bogert lives in Chikaming Township year-round.
One day in 2020, his neighbors who live on a bluff overlooking the lake began building a giant rock revetment. Again, these huge boulders and chunks of concrete just piled on top of each other.
I actually paced it out and the whole thing is about five hundred feet long and 30-40 feet high. It is truly gigantic.
BOGERT: I think this project, which I nicknamed Chichen Itza– because it looks like the side of Mayan temple– turned off a lot of people to these sorts of projects in the township, because beach walking was impossible.
WANSCHURA: Standing in front of it, it’s not hard to see why this revetment became the talk of the township. And soon the talk turned into complaining.
BUNTE: We were getting a lot of calls, we were getting inundated with people, ‘How could we allow this to happen? What are we going to do to stop it?’
WANSCHURA: David Bunte is the manager of Chikaming Township.
And he wondered, who’s going to come to a beach community like Chikaming, if there’s no beach– just seawalls and rock revetments?
BUNTE: I didn’t want to see our coastline that has been pretty much intact and like this for almost 100 years – destroyed to that level.
WANSCHURA: So Bunte and the Chikaming Township board really start thinking about this issue.
They talk to researchers and experts, get all sort of public feedback– and what they come up with is pretty radical.
They ban hardening the shoreline. No more sea walls, no more rock revetments.
As far as he knows, Bunte says no other community on Great Lakes has done something quite like this.
And the reason Chikaming Township passed this ordinance isn’t just because these shoreline structures look bad and make it harder to walk the beach. It’s also because these structures– which are meant to stop erosion– actually do the opposite.
SPRINGER: Oh! That’s interesting. Because the thinking had been, ‘Oh this is great, erosion’s solution.’ So what you’re saying is it actually causes more erosion to put these seawalls and revetments in?
WANSCHURA: Yeah, exactly. I mean, in the short-term, they can provide some stabilization. But long-term, they cause more erosion.
Guy Meadows has been studying this for a long time. He heads the Great Lakes Research Center at Michigan Technological University.
GUY MEADOWS: Having hardened structures that are steeper than the slope of a natural beach all reflect waves back out to sea, and those reflected waves interact with the incoming waves to produce more turbulence in the near-shore zone and they drive sediment further offshore.
WANSCHURA: That’s kind of a lot right there, but think of when a wave washes ashore– it drives sand and sediment up along the shoreline and that helps replenish the beach.
But when the shoreline is hardened, the waves just bounce back into the lake.
All that wave energy pushes the sand and sediment farther and farther out into the lake, until it reaches a point where it will never get washed ashore again.
That loss of sand is more erosion and it really damages the neighboring properties too.
Besides that, Meadows says a seawall or a revetment might buy you a little more time but it’ll eventually break down.
MEADOWS: You can look to a number of places here in southern Michigan where there is line after line after line of failed revetments. And the new ones will fail ultimately as well, so nothing is permanent.
SPRINGER: So if building these things doesn't really work and actually causes more erosion long-term– why do we keep doing it? And also why do agencies keep giving out permits for these types of projects?
WANSCHURA: It’s a fair question. I talked to Jerrod Sanders who runs the Michigan agency responsible for that.
JERROD SANDERS: You know, within our regulatory program, we believe that we followed the law the way that it is.
WANSCHURA: He says according to Michigan law, permits for shoreline construction are given out if the project is necessary to save a home, critical infrastructure, or to protect human health and safety.
SANDERS: And if it is, what is the least impactful permit that we have. That’s the way the law works.
WANSCHURA: He insists the state knows hardening a shoreline makes erosion worse. But when water levels in the Great Lakes were so high, he says he didn’t know of a good alternative.
Geo tubes are an alternative. And I’m going to go out on a limb here for a second, Morgan– they almost look like giant hot pockets.
WANSCHURA: Thick, permeable fabric is sort of like the dough part, and then they’re filled with sand.
So you put them in when the water is high and then take them out when it goes down and all that’s left will just be that sand. That causes less erosion because it’s temporary.
SANDERS: I’m not sure that we thought at the start of the crisis that those were going to hold up, but they really did.
In hindsight, Sanders admits the state could have encouraged people to use things– like Geo tubes– instead of issuing so many permits for permanent walls and revetments.
Of course, Guy Meadows from Michigan Tech says even these Geo tubes are a wolf in sheep's clothing, because they still harden the shoreline. Sure, it’s better than sea walls or rock revetments, but it’s still not going to change the most basic fact.
SPRINGER: Which is what?
WANSCHURA: We build on the lake, but we don’t understand the consequences of building on the lake.
That the shoreline is constantly moving. It's the place we started at the beginning– the Great Lakes steadily eroding until thousands of years from now, some of them are more like giant marshes.
Professor Richard Norton from U of M says we don’t seem to grasp this. Really, we want our cake and to eat it too.
NORTON: We’ve kind of developed this idea that we can engineer our way out of any problem.
SPRINGER: Does that mean we shouldn’t try? That we shouldn’t build near the shoreline?
NORTON: My inclination would be to say let's figure out how to move back from the shoreline wherever we can. And then let’s have conversations about who should pay for that and how we get there. And then only think about putting in permanent, hardened armoring if there’s some really compelling reason to do that in terms of the infrastructure that’s there or the numbers of people that are factored or something.
WANSCHURA: Now on top of the cost of getting millions of people to move their homes back– which is pretty unrealistic. It would also be a slow, long process going town by town, city by city.
What seems more likely is we keep trying to engineer our way out of this thing.
WANSCHURA: There’s one last story I want to tell. It’s an old one. It’s in the Bible. Jesus compares a person who’s wise, with a person who’s foolish.
And he says the wise person builds their house on rock. And then this huge storm comes and just hammers this house, water rises– but the house stands.
Then Jesus describes how the foolish person builds their house on sand. And again, this massive storm comes and the water rises and that house falls with a great crash.
It’s a metaphor, sure.
But also maybe something to keep in mind today as we build permanent things on an impermanent landscape.