DULUTH – Jan Karon built a plywood wall between her Park Point house and Lake Superior, but she still worries a bad storm could bring waves from the big lake crashing into her basement.
“This is urgent here,” she told officials from the city of Duluth, state agencies and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who met virtually with residents this week to discuss a plan to dredge about 50,000 cubic yards of sediment to fortify a portion of the beach on the 6-mile sand spit beloved by locals and tourists.
Park Point, also known as Minnesota Point, abuts the Great Lake on one side and Duluth’s harbor on the other. Water has crept up its shores in recent years as Lake Superior levels reached record highs, causing erosion and property damage for many of the 300 homes, hotels and businesses sitting on the skinny strip of land just beyond the city’s landmark Aerial Lift Bridge.
The dredging project still has to receive final approval from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. But if all goes as planned, work will start in early August and continue through the end of September.
Engineers will use a crane on a barge to scoop sediment from the Duluth-Superior Harbor navigation channel, which the Corps is charged with maintaining. That material would then be brought to a box on the point’s harbor side and pumped through a pipeline running under the Lift Bridge to the beach facing Lake Superior.
The goal is to nourish the northern portion of Park Point’s beach, from the ship canal to about S. 10th Street and perhaps a few blocks farther if there’s enough material. That area will be closed to the public during the 24/7 operation.
Another 70,000 cubic yards of material dredged from the harbor will be used to bolster Interstate Island, a 6-acre dot of land where two bird species are fighting for sinking territory.
In 2019, about 50,000 cubic yards of dredge material was placed on the southern end of Park Point. Melissa Bosman, project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, showed photos comparing that part of the shoreline today with its noticeably narrower pre-dredging state.
Karon lives just past S. 11th Street and is concerned there won’t be enough sediment to reach the beach behind her house. Since 2017, Duluth has been hit by three storms that merited state or federal emergency declarations. Winds and waves felled trees and gobbled up sandy chunks of the beach, alarming Park Point homeowners.
A group of residents formed an Erosion and High Water Committee last fall to advocate for solutions. A survey they conducted showed 80 of 95 respondents had seen some sort of property damage in recent years and spent as much as $55,000 on work to protect their homes.
Hamilton Smith, the committee’s chairman, has lived on Park Point for almost 50 years. Residents have faced plenty of precarious times in the past, he noted — he hasn’t kept anything on his basement floors for years — but he’s rarely seen conditions as severe as they are now.
That’s likely attributable to a combination of the storms and high waters, lighthouse piers cutting off natural sediment flows and a geological phenomenon that’s ever-so-slowly tipping water toward Duluth as the bottom of Lake Superior springs back from the weight of the glacier that formed it.
Dredging is a short-term fix, officials repeated Wednesday night. Waves can eventually wash away the new sediment, just as they did the old.
Smith said residents have contacted U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, a Republican representing the northeastern part of the state, for funds to construct more permanent protective barriers in Lake Superior. But as national issues like COVID-19 and police reform have a hold on Congress’ attention and checkbook, “that’s basically a pipe dream at this point,” Smith said.
Meanwhile, he said he hopes the dredging project will help keep the big lake at bay for a while.
“We kind of got lucky that this happened so quickly,” he said.