Port loses north beach to nature for the summer

Mudslide prompts city to close shoreline indefinitely, revisit complex, expensive bluff stabilization project

A LARGE PORTION of Port’s north bluff collapsed onto the beach last week, sliding into the water of Lake Michigan and creating a muddy mess at the toe of the bluff, as evidenced by this photo taken from atop the slide looking south. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

Port Washington’s north beach will likely remain closed to the public for the rest of this summer following a significant mudslide last week, officials said Tuesday.

The decision to close the beach was made to ensure public safety, and until the bluff is stabilized it is unlikely to be reversed, City Administrator Tony Brown and Public Works Director Rob Vanden Noven said.

“It’s not something that can be fixed quickly,” Vanden Noven said.

The decision was made after consulting with a geotechnical engineer at Miller Engineers and Scientists of Sheboygan, who recommended the closure in the interest of public safety, Vanden Noven said.

“We, of course, are aware of the fact the bluff is by its nature unstable,” he said. “That might not be something your average beach-goer is aware of when they’re lying on the beach.

“The risk is very low, but the consequences can be very high with bluff failure. I don’t want tragedy to be what causes action.”

Brown said, “If the decision is to potentially put citizens in harm’s way or keep them safe, the city’s always going to choose to keep them safe. Until something is decided upon and completed, it would be a public safety concern if we opened it.”

The city will now look at ways to stabilize the bluff — something that had been included in the city’s 2025  capital project plan — Vanden Noven said.

“Bluff stabilization would be a major expense, and we’re heading into budget season. We will re-evaluate how it fits into the five-year capital plan,” he said.

Brown said, “It’s definitely a priority now, that’s for sure.”

Mayor Ted Neitzke said that as important as the beach is, preserving Upper Lake Park atop the bluff is as big a priority — if not a bigger one — than saving the beach.

“We’ve come to expect the bluff is going to wash out every couple years,” he said, while the park above is a sometimes overlooked resource when discussing bluff stabilization.

“We protect our water plant. Maybe it’s time to figure out a way to protect our park,” Neitzke said, adding that the mudslide “definitely puts this in the top 10 things to look at when we build a (2023)budget.”

The slide, which was reported to the city Wednesday afternoon, June 8, did not affect Upper Lake Park above the beach, Vanden Noven said, but is located east of Possibility Playground.

Saturated soil, muck and plants slid into the water, extending beyond the shoreline.

“It was the biggest bluff failure I’ve seen in two decades,” Vanden Noven said. “We’ve had a handful of minor slides that have affected beach access.”

The second most serious slide he could recall, Vanden Noven said, occurred in 2020, when a slide near the entrance to the beach covered the paved access with debris and mud.

The city had planned to clear that area this month, but that plan is on hold until the beach is considered safe, he added.

“I think Mother Nature’s done a pretty good job of making access to the beach rather difficult,” Vanden Noven said, adding, “There’s virtually no effective way to physically keep people off the beach.”

Sandy Burmesch of Port, who has lived in Port for 40 years and said she walks the beach almost daily, said she ventured to the north beach on Friday to check out the situation.

“I just wanted to see how bad it is,” she said. “I just went down to take a picture. I’ve never seen a slide like that. Normally it doesn’t go out into the water. It’ll be a while before it washes away.”

She said she understands why the city closed the beach, but added that it likely won’t stop everyone from enjoying the area.

“I know it’s a liability for the city,” she said. “But everyone’s been climbing over the log pile (at the entrance to the beach). It’s not something that’s going to stop people.”

People realize they are heading to the beach at their own risk, Burmesch said, adding that she believes the bluffs along south beach are more dangerous than north beach.

“There are more slides on south beach,” she said. “It literally falls while you’re walking.”

Brown said the city may consider closing the stairs to the beach to limit access to the area as part of the closure, adding the city may also monitor use of the beach with an eye toward keeping people from the area due to safety concerns.

Vanden Noven said that while the exact cause of the slide hasn’t been determined, “I think the recent rain is what triggered the slide.”

The fact  that lake levels have been at or near record highs in recent years has likely also contributed to the problem, he said.

“What causes bluff failure is water from above and wave action below,” Vanden Noven said.

Bluff erosion is nothing new for the city. In the 1980s and 1990s, it wasn’t uncommon for portions of the bluff to collapse.

In April 1993, a huge mudslide took hundreds of thousands of pounds of earth down the side of the bluff and completely across the beach, leaving a clay-like mound 12 feet high.

Various bluff stabilization concepts have been studied through the years, including a 2001 study by JJR that called for cutting back the bluff significantly and constructing breakwaters and revetments to protect the base of the bluff at a cost of $4.3 million.

No action was taken on the plan, both because of the high price tag but also because many people feared it would reduce the size of Upper Lake Park too much and destroy the beach below.   

Most recently, in 2020, the city received a proposal for a geotechnical study of the bluff from Miller Engineers, which has done extensive bluff stabilization work in the area.

The study, which at the time was estimated to cost $52,000, would have looked at not only bluff stabilization but also ways to ensure the city has a usable north beach even when the lake level is high.

The Miller plan proposed cutting back and vegetating the bare and unstable areas of the bluff along the southern two-thirds of Upper Lake Park and relocating about 700 feet of the northbound road in the park.

The firm also proposed installing an 1,100 foot revetment at the toe of the southern portion of the bluff to prevent waves from eroding the stabilized hillside and using “beach nourishment” to help increase the sandy areas along the southern 600 feet of the beachfront.

Vanden Noven said the city would take a look at the Miller proposal and may also reach out to other firms to see if there are alternative stabilization options.

While any bluff stabilization plan is likely to be a multi-million-dollar proposal, Vanden Noven said, there are grants that the city could apply for that could mitigate the cost.

“What we’re facing is no different than what virtually every other Lake Michigan coastal community is facing, preservation of their shoreline,” he said.

Neitzke said the city should work with the county and state to try to find resources to help cover at least some of the cost of bluff stabilization, noting the park and beach are a regional draw with a hefty price tag — he estimated it to be $15 million to $20 million.

Vanden Noven said he hopes to have a more in-depth report on the bluff and a recommendation for the Board of Public Works to consider in July.


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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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