PRESS EDITORIAL: Lake Michigan: too much of a good thing

Will the public always have access to the south beach from the bluff above it after lakeshore land is transformed into the biggest residential-commercial development in the City of Port Washington’s history?

The question was raised at a recent public hearing on the rezoning of land for the Prairie’s Edge mega subdivision, and the answer was yes—in theory at least (always being a really long time).

In any case, the public may have to wait a long time for that question and answer to be relevant, because at present most of the south beach itself is just a theory.

At the lakeshore edge of the bluff land where 234 residential units and 40,000 square feet of commercial space are to be built, the beach does not exist. It has been reclaimed by Lake Michigan, whose water is on the verge of exceeding its highest level in recorded history. Even on calm days, the lake laps at the clay bluffs.

The city’s once gorgeous north beach is also a victim of the rising lake. Even on days with only modest wave action, it is under water. When there are no waves, what passes for the beach is a skinny strip of stones, gravel and diminishing sand, less than six feet wide in places, interrupted by barriers created by mudslides and uprooted trees.

The toll exacted from Port Washington by the high water is significant. The north beach was one of the city’s most valuable recreational resources. A photograph in last week’s Ozaukee Press offered a measure of the loss, showing a sand beach that as recently as several years ago was well over 100 feet wide. That beach attracted hundreds of people on summer weekends.

South of the harbor, erosion of the clay bluffs has been exacerbated; some homeowners have seen substantial portions of their property disappear into the lake.

Along the northern Ozaukee County shore—famed beach country where lake frontage fetched breathtaking per-foot prices not long ago—the lake is virtually at the doorstep of some homes and property values are sinking apace with rising lake level.

In the Port Washington marina, the pilings anchoring floating docks may require some modification if the lake-level rise continues unabated, but the wisdom of the decision to convert the marina to floating piers is nonetheless confirmed by the high water. The fixed piers they replaced could have been awash by now. 

The inner marina, home of the charter fleet, where docks are fixed rather than floating, is vulnerable, however. Some of the docks are only about 18 inches above water, a small margin when the fact that the lake has risen nearly five feet in the last six years is considered.

The consequences of the rising lake level are serious enough to suggest some outrage, but there is no point in that because there is no one to blame except nature for producing too much rain and snow. Beachcombers, lake property owners and lake ports are left to make the best of it. 

There might actually be a way for Port Washington to do that. The city is fortunate to be one of the few picturesque small-town ports on the Great Lakes that has a deep-water ship dock. The water at the former We Energies coal dock along what is now Coal Dock Park was always deep, but now, with the extreme high water, it is deep enough to accommodate any ship that plies the lakes. It’s an ideal tie-up facility for a cruise ship.

Cruise ships have come to the Great Lakes in a big way. The Pearl Seas line has a number of voyages scheduled this summer on Lake Michigan, with stops at Muskegan and Holland, Mich., and Milwaukee. Port should be on that list as a logical cruise ship port of call.

Regular cruise ship visits with hundreds of passengers eager to explore Port Washington would be another good reason to build a pedestrian bridge connecting Rotary Park and the downtown to Coal Dock Park.

Even for a city hard pressed to meet various essential needs, the bridge is not necessarily a far-fetched idea. Dock fees paid by cruise ships might help pay for it. Additional financing could come from grants and fundraising efforts that could include naming rights. The “We Energies Harbor Bridge” has a nice ring to it.

Besides bringing cruise ship visitors into the heart of the city to shop and dine, the bridge would provide a shortcut in the walk from the downtown to the south beach. 

That is assuming there will be a south beach again someday. 


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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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