Racine County Shoreline Residents Grapple with Bluff Erosion

Oct 24, 2016

Credit Susan Bence

Lake Michigan is experiencing high water levels. That phenomenon has turned the lives of some people living along its western shore upside down. Huge chunks are eroding, and dozens of homeowners are watching their property slip away at alarming rates.

Randy Vassh is working along a stretch of lakefront homes in the Village of Caledonia, maneuvering his excavator in tandem with his co-worker. The huge machines operate in three feet of water and stretch mechanical arms 30 feet out into Lake Michigan. They scoop up huge rocks and place them back along shore to slow erosion.

“The lake took them out, now we have to bring them back. Because the lake rose three feet in the last four or five years. Four years ago they had 30 feet of beach here,” Vassh says.

Vassh says this homeowner is luckier than some. His yard slopes to the water’s edge, making the project technically more simple, and his neighbors are sharing the expense.

Stan Olszewski surveys his sagging bluff.
Credit Susan Bence

Stan Olszewski looks out at the lake from his 50 foot bluff one village south in Mount Pleasant.

He can’t stand at its edge. Plants and small trees slid down 20 feet of once “solid” ground that has slipped precariously toward the shore below.

Concrete chunks stand heaped at his side, but Olszewski’s not quite sure when workers will arrive to move the concrete to the water’s edge. People like Randy Vassh come at a premium these days.

“The previous owners had put similar materials over the edge back in the 50s and 60s to try to preserve this and that what has happened over the years, since the lake has come up, it’s starting to erode, and there were caves that were formed under here from the erosion, well they collapsed and caused this all to drop. This has dropped off in the last 18 months,” Olszewski says.

One of Olszewski's neighbors had to be demolished.
Credit Susan Bence

He and his wife were educators in Illinois. They searched several years for their retirement spot.

“We designed the house when we were remodeling for wheelchairs if need be, and it’s one level to take care of no stairs. This will supposedly be it,” Olszewski says.

His home was once 50 yards from the bluff. Olszewski estimates he’ll invest $150,000 to try protect what remains. Some of his neighbors weren’t as fortunate.

“Like in Andy’s case up north here, 5 or 6 houses up north, his is encroaching his house quite dangerously. And down there about ¼ mile they had to tear Mike’s house down because his foundation was continuously being exposed,” Olszewski says.


A number of Mount Pleasant streets dead end into the bluff crumbling under Lake Michigan's record high levels.
Credit Susan Bence

Erosion also has put large sections Mount Pleasant’s roads and utilities at risk. Now, the town is seeking help from the federal government.

At a recent village meeting, utility manager Tony Beyer discussed his hopes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer might step in.

“From the village’s point of view we have…dead end roads that are failing and are very close to essential utilities, so we’re kind of biding our time to see if the Army’s going to come in, because if we spend money before they get on board, if they do, we don’t realize a million’s of dollars cost share,” Beyer says.

The Army Corps has stepped in, or at least, taken a first step. Operations engineer Randall Eigenberger says the Corps okayed a study of the shoreline.

“They will study the area. What would be funded and constructed is still in question…They would study the shoreline protection of the affected area but how much lineal feet would be done and where, that would come out after the study would be done,” Eigenberger says.

No one is sure when the Corps study will commence. Eignerberger says Mount Pleasant is competing with projects across the country.

Resident David Overby fears the delay. He lives at the end of one the town’s dead end streets.

“Army Corps of Engineers is the answer – please now don’t wait. The bluff has eroded to the edge of the street. It goes about 14 feet more, hits the sewer. Knocks us out, probably condemns our house,” Overby says.

Even those prepared to swallow the cost of shoreline remediation might have to wait.

Autumn and winter usher in heavier wave action and freezing conditions. But heavy equipment won’t roll again until next spring.

An attempt to hold back the ravages of high water and waves.
Credit Susan Bence