Lake Michigan homeowners wait in 'quiet terror' as high water levels eat away property

Oct 11, 2019

As Lake Michigan water levels remain at a near record high, more and more shoreline is being eaten away everyday. Large trees are sliding down steep banks into the water, wooden staircases are being torn out and property owners are panicking. As the fall storm season approaches, some worry their homes will be next.

Steve Gould built his house overlooking Lake Michigan in 2014. Since then, Gould says he's lost 50 to 60 feet of beach, and waves eat away at the base of the bluff where his home sits.
Credit Dan Wanschura / Interlochen Public Radio

In 2014, Steve Gould and his wife Mary Jane Gould built their dream home in Manistee. It’s perched high on a sandy bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. Blue, freshwater stretches out as far as the eye can see.

“The north country, to me is sacred,” says Steve Gould. "It’s what I’ve always wanted. So here we are as retired folks, we feel lucky and happy to be here.”

Now, high water levels on Lake Michigan are threatening to take away that dream for the Goulds and many other property owners along Michigan’s coastline. 

Above average rainfall the past few years has led to above average water levels in Lake Michigan. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers predicts over the next six months, the lake will remain near or even surpass water level records set back in 1986. That means more and more shoreline will be swallowed by high waves coming from the brimming lake.

Gould says many of his neighbors are living in “quiet terror” as water gets closer and closer to their homes and cottages.

“If you’re in water and it’s coming up and it’s up to your chest, it’s up to your neck, it’s up to your chin — when it gets up to your nose it’s now all of a sudden a big emergency,” Steve Gould explains. “So I think a lot of people feel that it’s up to their nose now.” 

That’s led many property owners to build stabilizing structures in the water. Gould decided on a 100-foot long sandstone revetment built into the base of the bluff. He says the permitting process took about three months and another three months to build.

Large boulders fit together almost like a jigsaw puzzle and form a sort of armored shell to repel the waves off the shoreline. The finished project cost around $100,000.

“When the waves hit these rocks, instead of the rocks absorbing that force, it seems to direct that force backward into the next oncoming wave,” he says.

To protect his shoreline, Steve Gould paid contractors to build a sandstone boulder revetment. The boulders repel the waves back into the lake.
Credit Dan Wanschura / Interlochen Public Radio

To build a shoreline structure you need permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy and the county. That process takes months.

Katie Otanez is a regulatory project manager with the Army Corps based out of Detroit. She says right now, they’ve been getting way more permit requests than normal.

“Normally we start to see applications taper off toward the end of summer and into fall, but right now we’re still receiving a lot of applications for shore protection,” she says.

Otanez says they’ve been reviewing a wide variety of proposals. Some rock revetments, sea walls, even some bioengineering projects. 

“We really leave it up to applicants — their consultants, their engineers — as far as what is the appropriate and effective solution for shore protection at the site,” she says.

A breakwall that runs perpendicular to the shore is probably going to take longer to review because of concerns about erosion downdrift in the lake. Otanez says the complexity of the structure can cause more delays in the permit issuing process. 

Denis Schrier also lives in Manistee, and he’s still waiting for a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This summer, he lost his wooden staircase leading down the bluff to the water. He calls what’s happening a slow-motion disaster.

“This bluff actually changes almost everyday now,” he says. “You can imagine, this was all vegetated, there were probably 15 or 20 fairly large trees up here that have now fallen into the lake.”

Denis Schrier's staircase leading down to the beach was lost to erosion earlier this summer.
Credit Dan Wanschura / Interlochen Public Radio

Schrier is working with a contractor on plans to install a steel sea wall with large rocks in front of it to break up the wave action. He’s been quoted for structures between $90,000 and $190,000.

"Never in my life, I guess would I have thought I’d be spending the kind of money I’m spending without a real absolute guarantee that it would work,” Schrier says.

“I think that’s the sense that people going into this with, they’re wondering if even if they spend all this money, that Mother Nature has lots of power that can only be resisted to a certain degree.”

Others are also questioning the long-term effectiveness of these shoreline stabilization techniques. 

Rob Carson is the planning director for Manistee County. He says the solution is to stop building houses so close to the water.

Rob Carson is the county planning director for Manistee County. He is also a Michigan certified sediment and soil erosion control officer.
Credit Dan Wanschura / Interlochen Public Radio

“If they fall down the bluff and they crash on the beach, the cleanup cost estimates are going to be much greater than trying to move these structures back or to demolish the structures before they fall off the buff,” he says.

Carson says in some cases, insurance companies are starting to pull their coverage from homes too close to the eroding shorelines. 

And with fall storms coming, even more panic is setting in.