LAKE LEELANAU, Michigan — A narrow strip of land teeters between the edge of Lake Michigan and a 2- to 3-mile section of the iconic M-22 state highway in Leland Township, Michigan.
Over the years the allure of the vast lake with its crashing waves and sandy beaches held out the promise of the ideal summer, replete with golden days and red-tinged sunsets.
People were seduced into building on the strip, convinced their dream homes could withstand whatever the big lake threw at them. So many homes were built that the land was gobbled up, forcing new homes to elbow in beside their elders, squeezing in side-by-side.
Those homes are now being squeezed in another direction as their beaches are gobbled up and once-enticing waves crash ever closer, threatening to destroy the homes that now perch just feet from the shoreline.
Boulders were placed this week along the shoreline of one house on the stretch.
Vincent Tomczak, owner of Peninsula Excavating & Landscaping in Lake Leelanau, laments that the water may rise several more inches before the year is done. He has been busy, both this year and last, hardening private beaches with piles of granite boulders that will stand up to the wave action, as well as the freezing and thawing of Michigan winters.
Climate change with its erratic weather is partly to blame, with winds coming from the northwest causing erosion of the shoreline, Tomczak said.
“It’s doing a lot of damage, that’s for sure,” Tomczak said. “We’ve had seven major wind storms in the last three months.”
But how much of Michigan’s beaches can be or should be hardened to save homes?
It’s a balancing act that puts the Department of Environment, Great Lakes & Energy between a rock and a hard place, one where homeowners are sometimes faced with demolishing their homes.
There are 3,300 miles of shoreline on the Great Lakes, with about 500 miles on the west coast of the state from the Mackinac Bridge to Indiana. A shoreline permit is required for any type of dredging or filling that will be done below the high-water mark.
EGLE has issued a little more than 1,000 Great Lakes shoreline permits from October, when its fiscal year began, through March, said Jerrod Sanders, assistant director for the Water Resources Division.
Of those, 85 percent to 90 percent are for shoreline erosion, said Sanders, who manages shoreline programs for the state.
To compare, 824 shoreline permits were issued for all of 2019. In 2014, when water levels were near their lowest point, 264 permits were issued.
The ebb and flow of the Great Lakes water levels and the state’s coastline has been occurring for 10,000 years, Sanders said. Erosion caused during peak high levels repairs itself when the water goes back down and the sand recreates the beach.
Hard-armoring the shoreline interrupts that natural process by allowing the sand to wash out to deep water, where it is lost, Sanders said.
Much of the armoring consists of adding protective riprap along the shore. That solution also has the least impact, Sanders said.
When the house is on an eroding bluff the best solution is to move the house back, he said.
“That’s the solution that is the best for the Great Lakes,” Sanders said. “We know there are long-term consequences for hardening the shoreline. What that means long-term is that we don’t have the beaches and dunes anymore.”
If a home can’t be moved, stabilizing the bluff may be an option. In many eroded areas the water is right at the bottom of the bluff and placing riprap at that toe and, depending on the angle of the slope, adding plants to hold the bluff in place may be enough.
If the bluff is a vertical drop, a retaining wall or steel seawall might be added. A wall has the most impact, is very expensive and may not be warranted.
“Some homes just aren’t savable because the slope can’t be stabilized,” Sanders said, and homeowners must demolish the home to prevent it from sliding down the bluff.
In all, less than 10 homes in the state have made that slide and none have actually gone into the lake, he said. Several have gotten very close and had to be destroyed.
Any costs to move or demolish a home are borne by the homeowner, as are costs to stabilize a shoreline, which is considered maintenance and is the responsibility of the homeowner.
“Generic insurance policies do not cover nor do they compensate for gradual erosion of your property,” said Chris Branson, owner of the Bonek Agency in Suttons Bay.
Branson said there are new insurance endorsements evolving that would cover lakeside damage to docks and shoreline structures, but they do not cover the home itself.
High water levels also continue to wreak havoc on village, township and county budgets as roads, hiking trails and parking lots collapse and municipal marinas watch the water lap over their docks.
Bluff Road on Old Mission Peninsula has been closed for several months after giving way to high water, with stopgap measures coming in at about $10,000, according to the Grand Traverse County Road Commission, and in Petoskey, a section of a popular paved trail, the Little Traverse Wheelway, collapsed from erosion earlier this month.
The historic Point Betsie Lighthouse in Benzie County will sink if a seawall and cracked concrete base is not replaced, and a parking lot at Christmas Cove beach in Leelanau Township has been crumbling away for years. At Empire Beach a retaining wall has been destroyed and the lake is claiming a boat launch.
Weather is the primary factor determining water levels and Michigan is warmer and wetter than it has been in 120 years.
Lakes Michigan and Huron — the two Great Lakes that did not break average monthly high water records last year, have done so every month this year, according to information from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
That is expected to continue through the July peak, with the lakes expected to rise another 4 to 6 inches, bursting through high marks recorded in 1986, said Keith Kompoltowicz, chief of watershed hydrology for the Corps’ Detroit District.
Kompoltowicz, who spoke to a crowd at a symposium in Frankfort earlier this year, said area residents should be prepared for high water to last a while.
“This is going to be a long-duration water event,” he said, adding that only hot, dry weather over the summer can drive lake level declines.
Sanders said he and others do not have a timeline for when levels will go back down.
“High water is going to be with us for a while,” he said.