Army Corps says condition of Port structure is worse than any other on lake, but that doesn’t mean agency will fix it
While Port Washington’s north breakwater is in terrible condition and in need of repair or replacement, representatives of the Army Corps of Engineers warned city officials Tuesday that the agency has little money for the work.
“It’s all about funding,” Robert Stanick of the Army Corps told aldermen. “Funding is tight. There’s a lot of competition for not many dollars.”
Stanick’s words were a cautionary message for city officials who have been working to convince the Army Corps that the crumbling breakwater is in desperate need of repair and who were heartened by a recent inspection report that seemed to bolster their cause.
The report, done by the agency’s Fox River office in Kaukauna and released last month, concluded that almost the entire eastern half of Port Washington’s north breakwater is structurally unsound and dangerous and should be rebuilt as soon as possible.
The Port breakwater “is one of the worst I’ve seen on Lake Michigan,” Stanick said Tuesday. “It appears the deterioration has accelerated quite a bit.”
Stanick said the inspection report “is the very, very first step” in the process of trying to get the breakwater repaired.
The report has been forwarded to the corps’ Detroit district office, where officials will decide whether to conduct a structural analysis to determine if the breakwater should be repaired or replaced, Stanick said.
After that, the analysis would be sent on for design work, he said. Depending on the result, construction could then be scheduled.
However, he cautioned, every step is contingent on funding, and the city will be in competition with larger, commercial harbors for that funding.
City officials have cited the breakwater’s importance in not only protecting the harbor and marina from powerful lake waves, but providing an attraction for the many tourists who visit the city each year.
Residents and tourists walk out to the lighthouse hoping to escape the summer heat and enjoy sweeping views of the city, while fishermen cast their lines from the breakwater, they said.
That isn’t an argument likely to garner much steam as the report moves up the chain of command, Stanick said.
“As you get higher up, you’re going to hear the argument that these are navigation structures, not structures for pedestrians,” he said, adding navigation is the biggest concern for the corps.
Ald. Dan Becker noted that the city may no longer be a commercial port, but said that the harbor is home to a thriving charter fishing industry that brings millions of dollars into the city’s economy each year.
If the breakwater were to fail completely, he said, it would not only affect the charter industry, it could potentially affect the city’s entire downtown, the marina and waterfront amenities and the We Energies power plant.
The condition of the breakwater could also imperil the lighthouse, which would affect navigation — a priority for the Corps of Engineers — Becker said.
Port’s situation isn’t unique, Stanick noted.
“We’re seeing this over and over,” he said. “We used to be able to maintain our structures. Now, it seems the ones that get the funds are those with complete failure.”
Jim Bonetti of the Army Corps told officials the breakwater was built about 1930 and portions of the structure are now failing, in large part due to the freeze-thaw cycle.
“That is, to some degree, compromising the integrity of this structure,” he said.
According to the inspection report, a large portion of the breakwater has failed, another segment is in very poor condition and a smaller area is in poor condition.
Only a small segment of the breakwater near shore is listed in good condition and needs only minor maintenance work, according to the report.
When Mayor Tom Mlada compared the city’s breakwater to Two Rivers’, which was repaired relatively recently, Bonetti said that was a different situation.
Two Rivers’ breakwater is a different type of structure, he said.
He noted that a 40-foot section of a Milwaukee breakwater built with a similar design to Port Washington’s completely failed in 1985.
“The potential here is the same as in Milwaukee,” he said. “If we continue to have those severe winters, we’ll continue to see this (deterioration).”
Mlada said the city has an ally in its quest to repair the breakwater in U.S. Rep. Tom Petri, a longtime member of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure who in June toured the breakwater with city officials and expressed concern about its condition.
Petri sent a representative to Tuesday’s meeting to hear the Army Corps report, Mlada noted.
Stanick said the local Army Corps office is also willing to do whatever it can to help Port.
“We can’t lobby for funds,” Stanick said, adding he doesn’t know when the district office will make a recommendation about a structural analysis. “All we can do is complete our report.”
Adam Brown, 924 Fairview Dr., questioned whether officials need to wait for the Army Corps to act. It might be better if the city contract for a structural analysis, he said.
“Do you have to wait for them?” he asked. “Your hands aren’t tied.”