Beach town bat­tles ero­sion

In­di­ana mu­nic­i­pal­ity files suit over shore­line pro­tec­tion along Lake Michi­gan

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By Mor­gan Greene

The sand stretched so far and burned so hot kids jumped from tip­toes to beach tow­els to cool their feet. When sum­mer hit in Og­den Dunes, a small In­di­ana town whose iden­tity was tied to a beach on Lake Michi­gan’s south­ern coast, tech­ni­color um­brel­las popped up. Res­i­dents re­laxed.

“A lot of the peo­ple I’ve met go, “Oh, when I was a lit­tle kid I used to burn my feet try­ing to get down to the beach be­cause it was so big,’ ” said res­i­dent Rodger How­ell. “And now you can dip ’em right in the wa­ter.”

Now, ero­sion is chew­ing up parts of north­west In­di­ana’s shore­line. In Og­den Dunes alone, the beach is dec­i­mated; a sliver re­mains on the west end. The town along with neigh­bor­ing com­mu­ni­ties in­clud­ing Bev­erly Shores, Long Beach and Portage have de­clared emer­gen­cies.

Har­bors con­structed decades ago dis­rupted the nat­u­ral flow of sand. That, com­bined with near-record high lake lev­els, di­min­ished ice cover, and ma­jor storms, has caused se­vere dam­age like that seen in Chicago and other Great Lakes coastal ar­eas. In a town flanked by steel mills and one of the new­est na­tional parks — where own­er­ship be­tween the beach and wa­ter is split — stake­hold­ers are at odds.

In Jan­uary, 50 res­i­dents and of­fi­cials of Og­den Dunes filed a law­suit in U.S. District Court over shore­line pro­tec­tion,

claim­ing dunes, roads and pri­vate homes are “in dan­ger of to­tal de­struc­tion” if cur­rent pro­tec­tions fail. The law­suit al­leges the Na­tional Park Ser­vice and U.S. Army Corps of En­gi­neers have in­ter­fered with the per­mit process.

On a re­cent af­ter­noon, beach access was blocked by cau­tion tape en­cased in ice. At the wa­ter’s edge, a splash from a 4-foot wave could har­den a win­ter coat. Pa­tios hov­ered over crum­bling dunes.

“It re­ally comes down to the sur­vival of our town,” said How­ell, one of the plain­tiffs and chair of the beach nour­ish­ment and pro­tec­tion com­mit­tee for Og­den Dunes. “We’re not look­ing for help. We’re look­ing to do this our­selves. We’re look­ing to get our per­mits and put this in place. And we’re look­ing to do what’s been pre­vi­ously agreed that we can do.”

How­ever, one of the pri­or­i­ties of the Park Ser­vice, which con­trols prop­erty bor­der­ing Og­den Dunes, is restor­ing the nat­u­ral shore­line and con­sid­er­ing longterm im­pacts.

The law­suit could sig­nal fu­ture bat­tles at a time when so­lu­tions de­pen­dent on fed­eral stud­ies and fund­ing are slug­gish, and as sci­en­tists pre­dict more vari­abil­ity in lake lev­els spurred by cli­mate change.

“This is the chal­lenge of coastal shore­line man­age­ment, is peo­ple want to build in ex­actly the most beau­ti­ful, frag­ile and dan­ger­ous places,” said Richard Nor­ton, a pro­fes­sor of ur­ban and re­gional plan­ning at the Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan who stud­ies both pol­icy and le­gal as­pects of coastal man­age­ment. “And then hav­ing built there, they want to do ev­ery­thing they can pos­si­bly do to pro­tect that struc­ture. And so more and more, we’re putting pri­or­ity on pro­tect­ing the beach house.”

Nor­ton said ar­mor­ing can come at the ex­pense of the beach.

“It’s heart-wrench­ing. You don’t ever want to see some­one’s house go into the lake,” Nor­ton said. “At the same time, does that mean that we’re go­ing to let ev­ery­body ar­mor and never have a beach come back? How do you rec­on­cile that? That’s the chal­lenge that we’re fac­ing.”

‘In dan­ger of to­tal de­struc­tion’

Res­i­dents started to be­come con­cerned about shore­line pro­tec­tion and sought per­mits more than a decade ago, How­ell said.

“What’s hap­pen­ing here is quite un­nat­u­ral,” he said. “With­out that struc­ture (the Port of In­di­ana) block­ing us to the east, our beach cer­tainly would be smaller with the high lake level, but we think there’d cer­tainly be a lot more. … So we don’t view this as a nat­u­ral cri­sis. It’s a man-made one.”

The law­suit pins the main cause of the ero­sion on struc­tures at the port, in­clud­ing the Burns Wa­ter­way Har­bor, ArcelorMit­tal Har­bor, U.S. Steel Har­bor and Burns Small Boat Har­bor — and says ero­sion has been ex­ac­er­bated by high lake lev­els.

“We were cer­tainly here be­fore the port and the park,” How­ell said. “We’re not ques­tion­ing their right to ex­ist. In fact, we helped with the cre­ation of the park. We ap­pre­ci­ate in­dus­tries there. We just want to co­op­er­ate with them.”

Pro­tec­tions installed in the 1980s and ’90s are now ex­posed to Lake Michi­gan, ac­cord­ing to the com­plaint, and at least one sec­tion of the steel wall is fail­ing. There have been two more struc­tural fail­ures since the com­plaint, How­ell said.

“If any por­tion of the sheet pil­ing fails, the town in­fra­struc­ture, in­clud­ing town-owned dunes, beach access ways, roads and util­i­ties — and pri­vate homes — are in dan­ger of to­tal de­struc­tion,” the law­suit says. “This in turn could lead to the re­lease of sewage and other pol­lu­tants into Lake Michi­gan en­dan­ger­ing the pub­lic and wildlife, and will en­dan­ger the lives of the oc­cu­pants of those res­i­dences.”

Pro­tec­tion plans were ap­proved by the state, but the Park Ser­vice “re­peat­edly in­ter­fered,” ac­cord­ing to the law­suit, and the Army Corps also in­ter­fered “by con­di­tion­ing ap­proval of the project” on the Park Ser­vice.

Paul Labovitz, the In­di­ana Dunes su­per­in­ten­dent, said in an email, “the most re­silient lake edge is a nat­u­ral shore­line.”

Some homes on the east end are po­ten­tially at risk, Labovitz said, but he does not think the sur­vival of the town is at stake. Labovitz also said the Park Ser­vice is con­cerned that ar­mor­ing in Og­den Dunes could fur­ther erode the bor­der­ing West Beach and the Portage lake­front beach.

The Army Corps said the Park Ser­vice would only ap­prove beach nour­ish­ment, not ar­mor­ing with large stones as pro­posed in the per­mits, the law­suit says, but the Park Ser­vice has al­lowed stone pro­tec­tion at In­di­ana Dunes Na­tional Park’s Portage lake­front and beach.

“What we would say is that the town of Og­den Dunes is not re­spon­si­ble for beach nour­ish­ment,” How­ell said. “We aren’t the cause of the star­va­tion.”

In­di­ana state Sen. Karen Tal­lian, who rep­re­sents Og­den Dunes, agreed the sit­u­a­tion is too dire to de­lay per­mits.

“Peo­ple are so frus­trated,” Tal­lian said. “We don’t think he (Labovitz) has the ju­ris­dic­tion to say no. And sec­ondly, it doesn’t make sense that he’s say­ing no, be­cause if we start los­ing the houses along the shore of Og­den Dunes, you’re go­ing to have a mul­ti­mil­lion­dol­lar dis­as­ter.”

‘Com­pro­mise that we live with to this day’

The town of Og­den Dunes was in­cor­po­rated in 1925 and was meant to be an up­per-mid­dle class, re­stric­tive com­mu­nity with golf cour­ses, shoot­ing ranges and a yacht har­bor. The Great De­pres­sion hit and tanked those am­bi­tions, said Dick Meis­ter, the out­go­ing pres­i­dent of the Og­den Dunes His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety and DePaul Uni­ver­sity emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of his­tory. But in later years, an in­creas­ing num­ber of mid­dle-class fam­i­lies not only had sum­mer cot­tages in the town, they be­came full­timers.

There are about 1,000 res­i­dents now, the ma­jor­ity of whom are In­di­ana res­i­dents, and nearly 60 homes dot the coast.

Tal­lian said she knows it’s been said that “rich peo­ple shouldn’t be build­ing their houses along the lake.”

“But you’ve got to go to Og­den Dunes and look. Some of those houses were built there in the 1920s,” Tal­lian said. “And when I first moved to Og­den Dunes in the ’70s, we had lots and lots of beach. It was never even a thought that we wouldn’t have beach.

Jen­nifer Petti, born and raised in Og­den Dunes, said she re­cently moved back from Alaska.

“Who comes back any­where from Alaska?” she said. “I love this place. My sib­lings are like this too. It’s in your DNA. The beach is our home. And it’s not the East Coast or the West Coast. It’s the south­ern shore of Lake Michi­gan.

“And where do you meet each other?” Petti asked. “On the beach.”

Petti re­mem­bers fam­i­lies, cool­ers, blan­kets, neigh­bors next to one an­other. Kids used to play in the dune grass, catch­ing frogs. The shore was lined with sail­boats and wind­surfers.

“There’s no place for that now,” Petti said. “I know there’s hope. But to go from that mem­ory to this, is heart­break­ing.”

The shore­line cri­sis is not new; nei­ther are clashes with the Park Ser­vice over the beach, said Meis­ter, who’s work­ing on a se­ries of ar­ti­cles for the his­tor­i­cal so­ci­ety’s news­let­ter.

High wa­ter lev­els and dev­as­tat­ing storms came and went across decades, Meis­ter said. But things changed for Og­den Dunes with the con­struc­tion of in­dus­trial struc­tures start­ing in the 1960s.

Some res­i­dents, in­clud­ing Save the Dunes founder Dorothy Buell, fought for pro­tec­tion of the dunes. But the port moved for­ward, and the In­di­ana Dunes Na­tional Lakeshore was es­tab­lished in 1966 as part of the deal.

“That com­pro­mise that cre­ated the park is a com­pro­mise that we live with to this day,” said Colin Deverell, Mid­west program man­ager of the Na­tional Parks Con­ser­va­tion As­so­ci­a­tion. “So much of the ero­sion chal­lenge at In­di­ana Dunes Na­tional Park is due to the ex­treme de­vel­op­ment of the shore­line, which is only ex­ac­er­bated by cli­mate change, with in­creas­ingly se­vere storms and warmer win­ters.”

The con­struc­tion of the Burns Wa­ter­way Har­bor in 1967 be­gan trap­ping sand on the east side of the break­wa­ters, ac­cord­ing to the In­di­ana Depart­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources, “cre­at­ing sand starved con­di­tions,” and re­sult­ing “in ero­sion and loss of the beaches and sand dunes on the Og­den Dunes shore­line.”

In a 1960 re­port from the Army Corps, of­fi­cials said the Port of In­di­ana would lead to an­nual ero­sion of the shore­line west of the har­bor. Just how much was sig­nif­i­cantly un­der­es­ti­mated, ac­cord­ing to later Army Corps re­ports.

Cary Troy, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of civil en­gi­neer­ing at Pur­due Uni­ver­sity, said you can think of the shore­line as a con­veyor belt — “where as long as what you’re los­ing is equal to what you’re gain­ing in terms of the sand mov­ing along the coast, you won’t have ero­sion, even if the rates of the trans­port of sand along the coast are very high.”

The nat­u­ral move­ment of sed­i­ment leads sand to the mid­dle of In­di­ana at the south­ern­most point, Troy said.

“But as soon as you put in a bar­rier,” Troy said, “you dis­rupt that con­veyor belt, and that will lead to a pile up, or a loss of sand, de­pend­ing on what side of the bar­rier you’re on.”

Up un­til 2015, sand from dredg­ing was oc­ca­sion­ally used to re­plen­ish beaches in the Og­den Dunes area. Dredg­ing ac­tiv­i­ties have been lim­ited in re­cent years due to high lake lev­els, ac­cord­ing to the In­di­ana nat­u­ral re­sources depart­ment. But res­i­dents said even be­fore 2015, there wasn’t enough sand be­ing placed on the beach.

Now, the town wants to re­in­force walls up to 25 feet from lot lines and place rock revet­ments. Ac­cord­ing to the law­suit, the Army Corps and Park Ser­vice have failed to com­ply with state and fed­eral reg­u­la­tions that pro­vide “that Og­den Dunes is an area where ero­sion rates have been in­creased by man-made struc­tures and as such, is ex­empt from the ‘let na­ture take its course’ phi­los­o­phy.”

But there’s a patch­work of own­er­ship and con­trol­ling in­ter­ests. While Og­den Dunes owns the beach, the state of In­di­ana holds the land from the wa­ter’s edge to the or­di­nary high wa­ter mark in trust for the cit­i­zens of In­di­ana, ac­cord­ing to the Depart­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources. The Army Corps has con­trol over the wa­ter’s sur­face, but the Park Ser­vice has ju­ris­dic­tion within its prop­erty bound­ary — and reg­u­lates the area be­tween the high wa­ter mark out 300 feet, ac­cord­ing to Labovitz.

“You can fight about who owns it, re­ally,” Meis­ter said. “But there are stake­hold­ers who have dif­fer­ent goals.”

‘Go­ing storm to storm’

Lorelei Weimer, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of In­di­ana Dunes Tourism, said the ex­tent of ero­sion dam­age be­came ap­par­ent a few years ago when a wheel­chair-ac­ces­si­ble ramp at the Portage Lake­front and River­walk area, one of the new­est ad­di­tions to In­di­ana Dunes Na­tional Park, landed in the wa­ter.

“And we re­al­ized we’ve got some is­sues go­ing on,” Weimer said.

In Novem­ber 2018, drone footage of the Portage lake­front showed a dune that could po­ten­tially be breached. Weimer said there was hope the dune could be pro­tected.

“We wanted to make sure peo­ple un­der­stood we were not cry­ing wolf,” said Weimer, who ad­vo­cated for months at the state­house to se­cure fund­ing for a study of the shore­line and beach nour­ish­ment. “And the re­al­ity of it is this past Novem­ber, that dune breached. And so now you’ve got this pav­il­ion that’s sit­ting on this lit­tle is­land, and we’re cer­tainly hop­ing that it’s not go­ing to fall in the wa­ter.”

In nearby Bev­erly Shores, which was af­fected by the Michi­gan City Har­bor, most homes were wiped out decades ago, and now “the lake is lap­ping at the road that’s be­hind,” said Geof Ben­son, the pres­i­dent of the Bev­erly Shores Town Coun­cil.

Be­tween 2012 and 2019, Bev­erly Shores’ beach lost about 3,000 dump trucks of sand, ac­cord­ing to Troy.

Bev­erly Shores is work­ing with the Park Ser­vice, which owns the dam­aged land ad­ja­cent to the road.

“We’re not su­ing them,” Ben­son said. “That’s the big­gest dif­fer­ence.”

Seawalls with­out revet­ments are fail­ing, Ben­son said. There are talks about mov­ing the Florida Trop­i­cal House, fea­tured in Chicago’s 1933 World’s Fair, as wa­ter en­croaches. The town has reached out to get quotes on what it would take to safe­guard the road, which houses util­i­ties. That could mean more debt.

“Maybe if some­body ever gets around to an emer­gency dec­la­ra­tion, we might make some of it back,” he said.

Gov. Eric Hol­comb signed an ex­ec­u­tive or­der in prepa­ra­tion for a dec­la­ra­tion, and a web­site was cre­ated to re­port dam­age. But some res­i­dents are frus­trated the state hasn’t de­clared an emer­gency.

“The value of what we’re go­ing to lose could be a lot higher than the money to shore it up,” Weimer said.

In Chicago, Gov. J.B. Pritzker is­sued a state dis­as­ter procla­ma­tion in Fe­bru­ary, al­low­ing mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties to ap­ply for fed­eral fund­ing af­ter a Jan­uary storm caused $37 mil­lion in dam­ages.

A dec­la­ra­tion can­not oc­cur un­less in­fra­struc­ture is dam­aged, ac­cord­ing to the In­di­ana Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity, and the ero­sion is not tied to a sin­gle in­ci­dent — pre­sent­ing an­other ob­sta­cle.

Long-term in­ter­ests, short-term needs

The high lake lev­els have forced the hand of stake­hold­ers along the Great Lakes, said Troy, the Pur­due pro­fes­sor. The chal­lenge is bal­anc­ing long-term in­ter­ests with real short-term needs.

Beach nour­ish­ment is gen­er­ally “a long-term process that leads to a healthy coast over longer pe­ri­ods of time,” Troy said. “And when you have houses that are threat­en­ing to fall into the lake, that re­quires more of an im­me­di­ate so­lu­tion. And I think that’s where a lot of the con­flict is aris­ing.”

If lake lev­els re­main high, and storms con­tinue to pum­mel the shore­line, there may only be more pres­sure to im­ple­ment ar­mor­ing struc­tures, said Richard Nor­ton, of the Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan.

“That’s go­ing to just cre­ate more and more con­flict,” Nor­ton said. “Ero­sional pro­cesses are prob­a­bly go­ing to prompt more law­suits around these har­bor struc­tures as prop­erty own­ers down-drift of them, more and more, are see­ing ero­sion ac­cel­er­ated, and they want to find some­one to help, take ac­tion.”

There’s also the po­ten­tial for pub­lic nui­sance claims, if neigh­bors pur­sue each other for ar­mor­ing that ac­cel­er­ates ero­sion on nearby prop­er­ties, Nor­ton said, as well as pos­si­ble pub­lic in­ter­est group lit­i­ga­tion as beaches dis­ap­pear.

Re­gard­less of the out­come of the Og­den Dunes law­suit, the one thing ev­ery­one agrees on is the need for a long-term so­lu­tion. A study com­pleted by the Army Corps in 2010 said pro­tec­tion struc­tures will even­tu­ally need re­place­ment as the shore­line erodes. But the next step, a vi­a­bil­ity study, is paused due to lack of fund­ing and state sup­port.

The most likely so­lu­tion raised in the study in­volves a by­pass pip­ing sys­tem that would trans­fer dredged ma­te­rial from east to west near Og­den Dunes, ac­cord­ing to David Bu­caro, Army Corps out­reach man­ager.

The na­tional park name change led to a more than 80% in­crease in vis­i­ta­tion, said Weimer, of In­di­ana Dunes Tourism, so a so­lu­tion to pro­tect­ing beaches is crit­i­cal.

Deverell, of the Na­tional Parks Con­ser­va­tion As­so­ci­a­tion, agreed a long-term so­lu­tion is needed. “But we have to be care­ful,” he said. “Fur­ther de­vel­op­ing the shore­line will only make the prob­lem worse.”

The Park Ser­vice re­leased an en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact state­ment in 2014 about shore­line man­age­ment for In­di­ana Dunes, Deverell said, “and as a na­tional park, a nat­u­ral shore­line is what is pre­ferred.”

Labovitz said the park’s pre­ferred so­lu­tions are beach nour­ish­ment — a key com­po­nent of long-term plan­ning. Short-term needs can mean pro­tect­ing struc­tures “that prob­a­bly shouldn’t be there,” he said.

So­lu­tions to sta­bi­lize coast­lines can be chal­leng­ing, Troy said. Drone sur­veys have shown that with wa­ter lev­els at cur­rent near­record highs, as much ero­sion can hap­pen over one or two storms as you’d see in a few years.

“But these things do re­bound nat­u­rally over time. So if the lake lev­els do go down, even­tu­ally if there’s sand avail­able off­shore, it will slowly make its way back on­shore and re­build the beach,” Troy said. “But it’s not go­ing to hap­pen overnight. And for ar­eas where in­fra­struc­ture and prop­erty is threat­ened, the shore­line is not go­ing to heal it­self fast enough for those dif­fer­ent things to be back to the way they were.”

“It re­ally comes down to the sur­vival of our town. We’re not look­ing for help. We’re look­ing to do this our­selves . ... And we’re look­ing to do what’s been pre­vi­ously agreed that we can do.” — Rodger How­ell, chair of the beach nour­ish­ment and pro­tec­tion com­mit­tee for Og­den Dunes


Rodger How­ell sur­veys ero­sion be­hind a pro­tec­tive seawall dur­ing a win­ter storm in Og­den Dunes, In­di­ana, on Feb. 13.


Signs tell peo­ple to keep away from a home on Feb. 12 in Og­den Dunes, In­di­ana, where beach ero­sion threat­ens the town.

The Na­tional Park Ser­vice em­ploy­ees work on emer­gency ero­sion con­trol at Lake View Beach in Bev­erly Shores, In­di­ana, on Feb. 12. Most homes were wiped out decades ago.

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