Questions linger about plan to sink ship, sculptures

Port council still not ready to sign off on organization’s proposal to create artificial reefs off breakwater
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

Questions about a proposal to create a series of artificial reefs from sculptures and sunken vessels at the bottom of Lake Michigan off Port Washington once again led the Port Washington Common Council to hold off on endorsing the project.

The project, proposed by the Shipwreck Education and Preservation Alliance, would be the first of its kind in Lake Michigan — something that has some officials leery of the potential liability.

“I just don’t feel we’re in a position to move forward,” Ald. Dan Benning said. “There’s an awful lot of risk and questions here. We have to do this right.”

SEAPA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to shipwreck preservation, freshwater education and aquatic habitat restoration, has proposed a six-phase, $9.97 million project intended to create artificial reefs off Port’s shore that it says will improve the aquatic environment and help restore native fish levels.

The initiative will also develop a public access into the lake, aid in educational efforts at local schools and colleges, help local police, fire and dive teams train for emergencies and increase tourism, said SEAPA President Tish Hase, co-owner of Port Deco Divers in Port Washington.

SEAPA will be seeking grants and donations to fund the project, which would cost almost $10 million overall — including the cost of acquiring and sinking several vessels.

While SEAPA would do much of the work for the project, the organization needs the city to sign on as a co-applicant for permits from the Army Corps of Engineers and Department of Natural Resources because it has riparian rights over much of the project area.

Other riparian property owners, such as the Town of Port Washington and Waukesha State Bank, have already agreed to this, Hase said.

The DNR still has questions about the project, and neither it nor the Army Corps have approved the project, City Administrator Mark Grams said.

City Attorney Eric Eberhardt, noting that the federal government owns the breakwater, said the city’s lease to use the structure only allows the community to use it for access to the lighthouse, not for diving or projects such as the artificial reefs.

In addition, he said, the city’s licensing agreement with the federal government only allows it to install safety devices such as life rings, ladders and call boxes on the breakwater, not stairs.

The lease and licensing agreement would have to be renegotiated to allow SEAPA to install a proposed stairway into the water, he said.

Eberhardt said without knowing the terms of any amended agreements, he could not recommend the city approve any agreement with SEAPA.

In addition, he asked whether the city or SEAPA would be liable if someone was injured while exploring the artificial reefs. The recreational immunity that protects the city from liability in many cases may not apply to structures on the lakebed, which the community doesn’t own.

Hase said SEAPA is working with the Department of Natural Resources and Army Corps of Engineers on permits for the project, but because the work isn’t completed and the concept of an artificial reef here is so unique, there isn’t a template to follow.

Because of that, she said, some questions can’t be answered yet.

Ald. John Sigwart questioned why some of the sculptures will be placed in relatively shallow water, calling them “attractive nuisances.” 

Those sculptures will create places for young fish to hide from predators, Hase said, and help restore native species.

Despite the questions, Ald. Mike Ehrlich told Hase, “This doesn’t mean we don’t support you. I want to commend you on your tenacity. ”

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