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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

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October 2003

Coastal hazards

When bluffs fall and sand gets you stuck.

Natasha Kassulke


As you drive County LS in Sheboygan County you can't miss the signs of danger. The highway north of the Whistling straits Golf Course in Kohler is in jeopardy of falling into the lake. Officials are trying to decide if filling and rip-rap will be enough to save the bluff or if the road should be moved, explains Mike Friis.

Managing natural hazards, such as bluffs that can give way, has been a backbone of the WCMP and a priority since it was created.

Work from 1974-79 led to a model ordinance to regulate coastal development. It was used in Racine, Ozaukee, Sheboygan and Douglas counties. Yet, there is no official state policy to deal with coastal erosion in the Great Lakes. High lake levels in the mid-1980s caught many unprepared. This led WCMP to update methodologies to better understand shore erosion and develop appropriate policies. For about 10 years, WCMP has organized and staffed an interagency natural hazards work group including members from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Wisconsin Emergency Management, the State Cartographer's Office, and UW Sea Grant.

"The key is to align the talent and resources in the state to address shore erosion and collaborate with property owners," says Alberto Vargas, WCMP natural hazards coordinator who chairs the work group.

Shore erosion can average two to five feet per year in bluff areas, 10 feet per year was recorded in portions of Racine and Kenosha counties. Varying lake levels cause concerns. High water levels can add to erosion and flooding. Low levels leave piers high and dry and cause navigation concerns.

Current coastal hazard work focuses on education, assessing if county ordinances are effective and developing statewide shore erosion plans. We need to include coastal hazard planning into state and local mitigation plans to break the cycle of disaster-recovery-disaster, explains Diane Kleiboer, from Wisconsin Emergency Management and a work group member.

"There are a lot of homes on Lake Michigan that are too close to the edge, so there is a lot of interest in putting in shoreland protection structures," says Al Lulloff of DNR's watershed management bureau and also a work group member.

Others, such as David Hart, GIS specialist at the UW Sea Grant Institute, have been developing applications and conducting GIS training in all coastal counties.

Phil Keillor, a semi-retired coastal engineering specialist for UW Sea Grant, has worked on coastal hazards with WCMP since it started. In the late 1970s he led studies for Racine County to manage the shore and identify scenic areas. The Coast Watch Program trained volunteers to make observations about pollution and erosion.

"Racine's new shoreland ordinance in the 1980s was intended to protect new homes," he says. "We adopted and modified a model ordinance that WCMP has adapted." He helped sell the concept to other counties. In the early 1980s, Keillor was involved in a project with the Department of Natural Resources to map historic lake trout spawning reefs in Lake Michigan and Lake Superior. "This was an unusual project for WCMP because it took us off shore," Keillor says.

They mapped the Apostle Islands and Devil's Island Shoal. Keillor credits Bruce Swanson of the DNR with coming up with the idea of packing fertilized fish eggs in reefs of sandwiched Astroturf. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service helped stock reefs for more than 12 years until enough lake trout came back and spawned.

"It was a successful restoration project," Keillor says. "It's remarkable that an agency and the people in it would have the faith to keep the project running that long."

Natasha Kassulke is Associate Editor of Wisconsin Natural Resources.