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Emergency Meeting to Discuss Crumbling Lake Bluff in Racine County

Photo courtesy of The Racine Journal Times
Erosion along the lakefront between Racine and Kenosha

A state of emergency exists in Racine County for about a dozen homes along the lakefront. The eroding lake bluff is threatening to pull down the houses. 

Emergency officials will meet with residents Tuesday evening to talk about possible solutions.

Roger Tietz is in the business of preventing lake bluff erosion. He works for Edward E. Gillen Marine, a Mequon company that installs shore protection. Tietz says this year a lot of areas without protection are vulnerable.

"We've got a higher lake level, it's two foot higher than last year, four foot higher than, say, four years ago. We're not at the all-time high yet, it could go higher," Tietz says.

Tietz and I chatted along the lakefront south of Milwaukee. He told me that when waves crash against the base of the lake bluff they eat away at it. Eventually it can crumble. He says for decades, property owners have tried to hold back the waves.

"Broken concrete, curb and gutters, sidewalks have been dumped over bluff faces for many, many years," Tietz says. But Tietz says those materials eventually break down.

"It's strange to see the yard getting smaller," says Ron Cramer, who lives in Mount Pleasant in Racine County. The eroding lake bluff in his neighborhood is threatening about a dozen houses.

"Two of our three children have had weddings in our back yard and now the very places where we had the wedding, 6-8 feet of that, is gone," Cramer says.

There are a few reasons why erosion poses a threat in Cramer's neighborhood. There's no break water in the lake to calm big waves. And the water is deep, right up to the shoreline. That allows waves to crash into the bluff at full strength. Cramer says erosion has claimed 20 feet of his property since last summer. But some neighbors have it worse.

"One of the houses got so exposed that they had to tear the house down. And I just met a neighbor, their cliff -- same way -- they had a garage that had to be removed," Cramer says.

Cramer will attend Tuesday evening's emergency meeting with FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies. He fears they'll tell residents they need to do a big overhaul to shore protection, such as by having impermeable boulders shipped in by barge. Cramer says not everyone could afford such expensive upgrades. And if some residents can’t beef up protections, erosion could continue in the area. Michael Hahn, deputy director of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, says erosion is a natural process.

"When you disturb the supply of sediment carried in the currents running along the shore, the erosive forces are going to still be there, down drift from the current, and they will look for other places to erode the sediment," Hahn says.

Roger Tietz with the shore protection company in Mequon says a strategy it uses is to pack together big boulders that are taller than most waves and won’t disintegrate. He says there are no easy answers for controlling the lake.

"Property values along Lake Michigan are very high, so that's why there's a constant fight against Mother Nature to protect those land values," Tietz says. He adds, it's a fight that Mother Nature may sometimes win.