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Moving Mountains One Wave at a Time: Shoreline Erosion In Northern Michigan

100 million dollars. That’s the estimated cost of necessary road repairs thanks to the coastal erosion happening in Michigan in 2020, according to MDOT representative Brad Wieferich. And, this is based on the current rate of erosion and expected weather. If erosion accelerates, this estimate could be woefully low.

While roads are important, but nobody lives on the road. The dramatic erasure of our coastline infrastructure in and around the Great Lakes watershed is also affecting property owners in real and expensive ways.

Many people who live near the water will tell you that lake levels are cyclical; while the current water levels are alarming, they’re actually pretty close to what we saw during the last high water cycle, which peaked in 1986.

Why This Year Is Different

The difference between what happened then and what’s happening now is that the high water levels of 2020 are paired with measurably more intense and unpredictable weather systems, causing wave action that is literally stripping vulnerable shorelines of their beach, and even worse, destroying the structures built nearby.

Nathan Griswold, one of the only certified natural shoreline professionals (CNSP) in our area, and owner of Inhabitect, a company specializing in green infrastructure and design, provided some insight into why shoreline erosion has been an especially challenging for homeowners in 2019 and 2020.

“The more we take shorelines away from their natural state, the more vulnerable they are to these erosion forces. It’s pretty common for site planners or homeowners to make decisions about their shoreline based purely on aesthetics. When homeowners cut down all the trees leading up to a shore, clear out every native plant and replace it with sand or turf grass, they leaving nothing to hold the bank in place. Turfgrass has a root system that extends as little as six inches into the ground, compared to native shoreline vegetation that can be up to six feet into the ground.”

Griswold went on to say that while anyone who lives on the water could be affected by shoreline erosion, there are some geographic zones that are in the most danger.

“Erosion isn’t a product of only high water levels; it gets bad when you combine the extra water with intense waves; something we’re seeing a lot more of lately. Sustained winds that are more intense than we’re used to, blowing across a long fetch create incredibly powerful forces, forces that could literally move mountains.”

A “fetch” is a measurement environmental professionals like Griswold use to determine wave size and force. A fetch is measured by calculating the amount of open water between the subject property and the closest piece of land in any one direction, taking into account the prevailing winds. The longer the distance and the more in-line that distance is with the prevailing winds, the more time waves have build up the volume and energy that carries them onto the shore to wash away beaches, docks, and homes.

Homes on West and North Facing Shores are Most Vulnerable

Homes in Northern Michigan that have the highest potential fetch and are most vulnerable to erosion are those on the western and northern facing shores of Lake Michigan. But, that doesn’t mean other homes are safe.

“Thanks to bigger storms with less predictable winds patterns, any home on a large body of water, including larger inland lakes like Torch Lake, Lake Leelanau, or Crystal Lake are subject to erosion” Griswold explained.

Though there’s no stopping the waves from coming, that doesn’t mean property owners are powerless. According to Griswold, there are preventative measures that homeowners can take to protect their investment.

“If you’re worried about shoreline erosion, you can start by maintaining or returning your shoreline to a natural state. Stop cutting down trees, plant some new ones, work with your local expert for suggestions on native plants to bolster your shoreline. If you’re already experiencing erosion, consult with a certified natural shoreline professional to find out what options you have. There are certainly cases where concrete or steel or boulders are necessary, but I can tell you, break walls and unnatural solutions will only last so long because they aren’t part of the original design. Eventually, mother nature is going to take those too.”

Why More Than Just Waterfront Property Owners Should Be Concerned 

Shoreline erosion isn’t just a concern for waterfront property owners. Some of our most spectacular community resources line the coasts of our waterways in the form of parks, beaches, and natural areas. Griswold reminds us that everyone, regardless of where they live, can contribute to the protection of these spots with responsible stormwater management.

“We talk about the Great Lakes watershed on a macro scale, but that doesn’t discount how important stormwater management is on a micro-level. Homeowners everywhere who have things like rain gardens, permeable pavement, and green roofs are reducing the volume of water and helping to slow down its flow by diverting it into the ground instead of into a pipe that flows directly out to Lake Michigan.”

Griswold and Inhabitect are currently accepting new shoreline management and restoration clients, for questions please email or call 231-943-1434.

Are you ready to make the investment in a waterfront property? The Brick & Corbett Team is here to help walk you through the process. And, when it’s time to sell, our decades of combined experience selling luxury and waterfront property guarantees you’ll get the best price for your home. Contact the Brick & Corbett Team today for all your waterfront buying and selling needs. 


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