Homeowners wage costly war against rising lake

Rural Belgium residents are spending tens of thousands of dollars to protect their property from shoreline erosion

LAKE MICHIGAN’S RISING water level has covered the once-wide beach outside Town of Belgium resident King Coles’ home and is threatening his land. So much land has been eroded that Coles and his neighbors are having riprap installed to protect their properties. Photo by Sam Arendt
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

Pat Pritzlaff and several of her neighbors are fighting Mother Nature after seeing the beach outside their Town of Belgium homes destroyed by rising lake levels and crashing waves.

“This is very sad,” Pritzlaff said. “To see this land being chewed up by the waves, it’s just so, so sad. It destroyed my steps going down to the beach. I had a tree, a 90-foot one, uprooted on the beach.”

This year, record and near-record lake levels have caused havoc on lakefront properties. Bluffs have been eroded as waves undermine their base, beaches are nonexistent and the Port Washington marina had to spend almost $39,000 to raise the pilings on which its piers sit to accommodate the higher water.

And like many lakeshore property owners, Pritzlaff and two of her neighbors on Cedar Beach South are paying tens of thousands of dollars to install riprap in an effort to save their properties from erosion.

“It’s sad, but this is what you’ve got to do,” Pritzlaff said.

The land is precious, she said, noting that her property has been in her late husband Ron’s family since 1945. 

“In years past, we put tables and chairs out and the kids and grandkids were swimming and playing,” Pritzlaff  said. “This year, we basically had no beach — maybe a little for a day or two.”

This isn’t the first time the family has considered shoreland protection measures, Pritzlaff said.

Her mother-in-law considered installing riprap when lake levels peaked in the 1980s but the $10,000 pricetag deterred her, she said.

“I wish she had done it,” Pritzlaff said, noting the price has roughly doubled since then.

King Coles, one of Pritzlaff’s neighbors, said he’s never seen anything like it in his 80 years.

“In my lifetime, this is probably the highest I’ve seen the lake,” he said, noting he’s lived in his house for 30 years. 

“The water levels used to vary in seven or eight year cycles. Now they’ve been lasting 20 to 30 years.” 

His house isn’t in any danger from the waves, Coles said. It’s just the property.

“We had probably 50 yards of sand beach at one point,” he said. “I remember having to mow the sand because there were weeds and grasses growing.”

And while they used to get relief when the wind blew from the west, opening the beach, Coles said, “Not anymore.”

The neighbors had little choice but to embark on the expensive decision to install riprap, Coles said, noting he is spending more than $30,000 to protect his property.

“I’ve lost probably 15 yards of lakefront,” he said. “Last year I said, if it comes up any higher we’ll have to do something.”

Most of their neighbors have already installed riprap, Coles said, so he and his two neighbors decided it was time for them to do the same.

The neighbors have to install a temporary road to allow the necessary equipment access to the lake, he said, and they also need to replace steps to the beach that have been destroyed by the lake.

Work on the riprap began last week, and Coles said he’s not sure how long it will take to complete.

Riprap is the primary way to protect Lake Michigan property, said Sarah Szabo, a water management specialist with the Department of Natural Resources.

“Riprap is going to dissipate the wave energy,” she said, noting the near record and record water levels experienced on Lake Michigan lately create more energy near the shore.

But there aren’t any hard numbers available on how many property owners have decided to install riprap in Ozaukee County, she said. That’s because the majority of the shoreline isn’t considered an area of special natural resource interest, and thus doesn’t require a permit for the installation of riprap.

But, Szabo said, where property owners are required to obtain a permit, “we do have higher numbers seeking the permit.”

That’s a trend likely to be reflected in Ozaukee County as well, she said.

“It’s a big project, a big undertaking,” Szabo said. “There’s a fair number of landowners interested in protecting their shoreline that way.”

Today’s riprap has a silt barrier to prevent sediment from being pulled out into the lake and to ensure the waves don’t scour the lakebed underneath the large rocks that are installed, undermining them, she said.

Andy Holschbach, Ozaukee County director of land and water management, said that there’s been a steady flow of people installing riprap through the years.

He hasn’t seen an uptick in the numbers since the lake levels have risen during the past several years, Holschbach said, but “there’s a lot of riprap along the properties here, especially in the Belgium area.”

Many people who have razed older houses and rebuilt on the land installed riprap then, he said, because the land is already disturbed and there is access to the shoreline.

Many others installed riprap in the 1980s, when the lake reached record levels, he added.

“It is a common thing people do to protect their valuable Lake Michigan property,” Holschbach said. “It is effective.

“Mother Nature is very challenging.”

Pritzlaff agreed, saying, “I think this lake is going to act up for another few years yet. We’re doing this to save the land we have.”

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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