A lake in the throes of climate chaos

The water level of Lake Michigan has dropped about a foot and half in the last year. For communities and property owners along the 1,667 miles of shoreline that have been fighting an expensive and often losing battle against erosion, this is a relief.

But don’t pop the champagne cork yet. This is the sort of pain relief that is likely to be temporary. The Great Lakes are firmly in the grip of the forces of climate change. Data collected by climate scientists show this vast area of freshwater is being affected more by warming than the rest of the North American continent.

Logically, this would be a harbinger of continued receding lake levels because warmer water means less ice cover and more evaporation. But climate change often defies logic, and the volatile weather it produces can increase the flow of moisture into the Lakes.

It was only a few years ago that the Lake Michigan level was dropping precipitously and hit an all-time low in 2013. Then climate-change chaos kicked in. 

The polar vortex was knocked askew and historically frigid weather took control of the Lakes. In March 2014, this newspaper published a photo printed across two full pages taken by an Ozaukee Press photographer from an airplane over the middle of a completely frozen-over Lake Michigan.

The ice cover limited evaporation that winter, and then came years of far-above-normal rain and snow. Six years later, Lake Michigan had risen by more than six feet and was at an all-time high—and was laying waste to the shore.

Unlike many lakeshore communities, Port Washington has (with an exception to be noted later in this editorial) fared quite well in the high-water years. Its breakwaters have been reinforced and the massive riprap revetment that protects the city’s most important shore facility, its small-boat harbor and marina, has proven equal to the ever-higher storm waves that have battered the shore.

Private lakeshore property is another story. Shore erosion driven by the high lake level has claimed land and threatened the homes of Ozaukee County beach property owners. In defense, some have built rock revetments. This has been done at great expense, in dollars for the beach dwellers, and in other currency for the public.

These great piles of rocks in many cases obliterate beaches and extend onto the lake bed. The lakebed and the water over it are natural resources that belong to the public, protected by a public trust doctrine affirmed by supreme court rulings over the ages.

Private lakeshore property owners own the land to the water’s edge, but the public trust doctrine, as interpreted by the Wisconsin and Michigan Supreme Courts, guarantees the public the right to walk on the beaches.

In some places, particularly in the Town of Belgium, that right is now buried under many tons of rock, and where the revetments extend well into the lake there is little hope of it reappearing any time soon.

The agency in charge of regulating lake barriers, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, seems to have taken a laissez-faire approach, perhaps because the agency is cutting some slack for owners of property threatened by an onslaught of nature, or because it is overwhelmed. Requests to the DNR for “emergency self-certifications” to protect structures from erosion increased 830% from 2018 to 2020. 

Barriers allowed without a permit in this manner are supposed to meet DNR standards, but compliance appears to be voluntary.

The barriers will likely be permanent lakeshore features. Call them monuments to the consequences of climate change.

Back in Port Washington, the exception to the city’s success in dealing with high water is its north beach. When the water level was at its peak, the beach was mostly underwater. Now that the lake has receded a bit, the beach is back, and it is quite beautiful. But, as an old joke goes, you can’t get there from here. The beach entrance is blocked, in part by a mudslide and in part by large fallen trees washed up by the lake. Dedicated beach walkers clamber over the mess, but at some risk to their safety.

The city should not continue to ignore the problem. The beach is an element of Upper Lake Park and has been an important public recreational asset for generations of city residents and visitors, and access to it needs to be restored.

The clay bluff above the beach entrance has been unstable forever, and the city is understandably not ready to take on the expense of a long-term fix at this time. But it certainly has the wherewithal to remove the partial earth barrier and accumulated debris that now block the beach.

The beach is a gift that comes and goes at the whim of nature, but while it is here the public that owns it should be able to enjoy it.


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Ozaukee Press

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.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


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