Beach town battles erosion
Indiana municipality files suit over shoreline protection along Lake Michigan
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.