A look at Michigan’s disappearing shorelines

‘Don’t get in Mother Nature’s way, because she will have her way’

With the recent heat, it’s hard to not think about spending the day on one of Michigan’s many lakes, but there’s a growing problem for many coastal towns: erosion.

LAKEPORT, Mich. – With the recent heat, it’s hard to not think about spending the day on one of Michigan’s many lakes, but there’s a growing problem for many towns along the lakes: erosion.

It’s been happening for years, but as climate change continues to impact the lakes, experts and those who live on the shore are beginning to worry.

“Sometimes we could feel spray up against the windows of the house, and big waves, you would actually feel the house vibrate when they hit the seawall,” said Geof Kusch. “Now you can see that the beach is about a foot below my sidewalk at the height of the high water. It was four to five feet from the sidewalk, down to what beach was there.”

Kusch has lived along Lake Huron for nearly a decade. In 2020, the water came a little too close for comfort. At its worst, the water has practically knocked on their back door.

He said the water in 2020 left piles of sand that were eight inches thick. The family had to dig out their sidewalk and replace their retaining wall. It cost them $10,000 and they were some of the lucky ones.

“Don’t get in Mother Nature’s way,” Kusch said. “Because she will have her way.”

Michigan is gaining more shoreline. While adding to the state’s thousands of miles of scenic views may seem like a good thing, the erosion of the Great Lakes is poised to wreak havoc.

The state has about 3,000 miles of shoreline along the Great Lakes and thousands more along rivers and in-state bodies of water. Between 2019-20, water levels hit record highs, capping a long trend of high water.

The erosion was so bad that it sent sections of bluffs and homes into the Great Lakes.

“The public parks around the Great Lakes have just been decimated,” said Andy Hartz, with Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. “People like to be close to the water, so if you build the house very close to the water, you’ve got a situation there where you’ve really got to protect you, got to protect that shoreline, because there’s not a lot to give.”

For Louie Caruful, who runs Timberline Construction in Lakeport, the high water means big business. He said he’s seen homes lose up to 50 feet of their yards. He spends his days lowering boulders along the shoreline for homeowners who hope the rocks break the waves and save their seawalls.

“The homeowners might be lucky this year, they might not take a beating,” Caruful said. “But, like last summer, they took a beating because the water was so high. Who knows what the water is going to do.”

Water levels have dropped in 2021, but they remain above average. Late St. Clair is nearly two feet higher than average. The erosion isn’t just bad for infrastructure and homes, but also for the environment. Disappearing shoreline can ruin plant life, create murky waters that make it difficult for fish and animals to feed and it can churn up pollution that have been captured by lake bottom soil, sending plumes of it into very active waters.

Property owners have been putting up metal or concrete seawalls to help the rising water, but that could cause more damage over time. Scientists said the best thing to do is to keep as many native trees, bushes and plants near the water to create a natural barrier.

In flooding damage alone, erosion has cost Michigan hundreds of millions of dollars. The cost can only go up if nothing gets done.

About the Authors:

Grant comes to Local 4 from Oklahoma City. He joins the news team as co-anchor of Local 4 News Today weekend mornings and is a general assignment reporter.

Dane is a producer and media enthusiast. He previously worked freelance video production and writing jobs in Michigan, Georgia and Massachusetts. Dane graduated from the Specs Howard School of Media Arts.