PORT WING, WIS. - It starts with a crack in the lawn.
When Mike Briggs mows his front yard overlooking Lake Superior, he searches for signs of earth weakening below his feet.
Over the past four years, Briggs has watched cracks turn into mudslides as heavy rains, sustained high lake levels and battering storms gobbled up an estimated 75 feet of shoreline from the dream property that he and his wife Kathy bought more than two decades ago. The once sprawling lawn in front of their little log cabin is now just three swaths of a lawn mower deep. Instead of remodeling the memory-filled vacation home, as they had planned, the Cannon Falls, Minn., couple made the gut-wrenching decision two years ago to give up and start over, building a new structure farther off the shoreline.
Pouring money into the old home just wasn’t worth the risk.
“We never thought that within our lifetime, we’d have to worry about it,” said Mike Briggs, 69, as he shook his head in dismay. “Wet clay is just like Jell-O.”
After several years of high water on the Great Lakes, residents and governments along the shores are scrambling to figure out what to do to combat Mother Nature’s wrath. As the water keeps rising, many are fortifying shorelines with giant boulders and concrete walls, rebuilding infrastructure and, in some cases, considering selling properties while they’re still habitable.
“The entire system is waterlogged,” said Keith Kompoltowicz, chief of watershed hydrology for the Detroit district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “There’s just a tremendous amount of water flowing into the lakes at the moment.”
All of the Great Lakes are on track to set or tie record-high monthly mean levels for June. Lake Superior hit a new such high for May, while Lake Erie set a record for the highest monthly mean water level of all time in a century of record-keeping.
And climate experts are predicting more storms, said Peter Annin, author of the book “The Great Lakes Water Wars.”
Three 500-year storms have hit Lake Superior in the past seven years, Annin pointed out; Duluth in 2012; Ashland, Wis., in 2016 and Houghton, Mich., in 2018.
All of it has come after record low monthly water levels in the lake in the summer of 2007.
“Every few years we have new precedent-setting extreme weather in the Great Lakes region,” Annin said. “We need to be thinking not about what our water infrastructure needs of the past have been, because they’re quickly becoming obsolete.”
Talk of the towns
The high water and crumbling shoreline have been the talk of the small towns dotting Wisconsin’s Hwy. 13 along Lake Superior’s south shore, where clay, sand and sandstone bluffs make the land particularly susceptible to erosion.
“The shore is just getting eaten away,” said Jeanne Gardner, a local newspaper editor whose mother owns a house along the lake near Port Wing. Though Lake Superior has swallowed up more than 20 feet of mowable land, Gardner said, her family is lucky it still has an estimated 100 feet of yard left.
“She said we lost a lot of property we’re paying taxes on,” Gardner said.
Putting boulders out to protect their 220 feet of shoreline would cost too much, Gardner said.
“It’s getting to the point where you wonder if you should sell,” she said. “My mom’s going to be 81. She doesn’t want to stick the money into it, and I can understand why.”
In nearby Herbster, the town lost a portion of its scenic Bark Point Road to the lake. Rebuilding it — including replacing 659 feet of land and fortifying it with wave-breaking boulders — will cost about $200,000, local officials said.
Randy Lund, owner of Lund Engineering in Washburn, Wis., developed a method to protect the shoreline by wrapping large boulders and smaller rock in a special type of fabric to draw in and hold sand. The idea is to create a barrier that’s buried into the beach that breaks up the waves before they can hit the shore and bluffs.
Drainage must also be controlled from the top of the bluffs, as rain saturates the banks and weakens the soil. Finally, vegetation has to be re-established to strengthen the soil surface.
One early project, completed in 2014, held up well through several storms, Lund said.
But it’s complicated and costly work that requires approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as well as the Wisconsin DNR, county and local governments.
Lund said he’s had more than 30 clients over the past five years.
“There’s more people that have asked about it, and when we give them rough cost estimates, they walk away from it,” Lund said.
The shoreline rock installation alone can cost $200 to $300 a foot, depending on the topography and exposure to miles of open water, Lund said.
“A lot of people, it’s beyond their economic reach,” Lund said, adding that he’s seen some people resort to putting their properties up for sale. “It’s been a mess.”
Down the road in Bayfield, Blackhawk Boat Yard owner Ken Dobson walked gingerly amid bobbing sailboats, across portions of permanent dock where boards were battered and blown away by high water and winds.
Some of the docks, held up by rocks in wooden cribs under the water, have been there for 80 years, Dobson said. So he’s not happy at the prospect of spending an estimated $200,000 to raise them 10 inches.
His neighbors are facing similar expenses, he said.
“It’s not just me, it’s everyone,” he said.
Dobson, citing books and stories he’s read, wonders whether there will be more pressure to pipe some water to Western states that want it, or whether hydropower plants, locks and gates at Sault Ste. Marie could let more water out of the big lake — something the Army Corps officials say they can’t easily change because of international regulation plans.
That would only dump more water into the St. Marys River and into already brimming Great Lakes downstream.
“The goal is to balance impact of the upstream and the downstream,” said Kompoltowicz, the corps hydrologist.
Opening all the gates wouldn’t really make a short-term difference on a lake as large as Superior, Kompoltowicz said: “Control of outflow does not lead to control of lake level.”
Dobson, meanwhile, doesn’t think his docks will need to be raised forever, because he’s confident the lake will go down again.
Lake levels do fluctuate by several feet in cycles over spans of decades, Annin said. But lately, he added, they are more volatile — lower lows moving to higher highs faster than they ever have.
“The water levels now are changing more rapidly and more extremely,” he said, “and it is going to test the patience of Great Lakes shoreline residents more than ever before.”
Learning to live with it
In Duluth, that patience is running thin among residents who like to use the popular Lakewalk shoreline trail, a tourist destination that has sat broken for more than a year and a half after storms walloped it in October 2017, last April and again last fall.
It is taking time to rebuild, officials said, because they are reconstructing it to be more resilient — working not just to replace the walking surface, but also strengthen the shoreline that has weakened beneath it.
Along one span near the Fitgers complex downtown, a new white, low concrete wall sticks out from cascading dark gray rocks placed along the water. At 18 inches thick, the wall is 12 feet deep in spots, fastened at the bottom to bedrock in some areas and concrete or steel piling in others.
“Before, the waves were blasting in through the rocks ... and washing in underneath the trail and undermining it,” said Mike LeBeau, construction project supervisor for the city of Duluth. “The concrete wall is to stop that from happening.”
It’s just the first rebuilding phase of many that the city is planning with the help of state and federal funding. Officials expect it could cost an estimated $30 million total.
Though much of the North Shore has non-eroding hard bedrock, the Lakewalk was built on swaths of less stable shoreline, which includes material removed and dumped there after blasting for road-building projects, LeBeau said.
Moving the popular path back from the shore might be smart, LeBeau conceded, but it’s not practical.
“It’s why we live here, why we hang out down there, why millions of people visit here, is to be there by it,” he said.
So engineers and construction companies will do their best to firm up the shoreline, hoping they can anticipate what the coming decades might bring.
“We know now that the lake is kind of a Jekyll and Hyde thing. It’s beautiful and placid often ... and other times you don’t want to be anywhere near it. It just gets fierce,” LeBeau said. “We just have to learn how to live next to it.”