BEVERLY SHORES – Take a cruise along Lakefront Drive in Beverly Shores and it's obvious – water levels on Lake Michigan are causing major headaches for lakefront communities. And federal authorities don't expect the problem to go away anytime soon.
Two La Porte County beaches – one in Long Beach and one in Michiana Shores – were closed last summer because high water levels made them inaccessible, according to the La Porte County Health Department.
In October, beach access to the Indiana Dunes National Park's Portage Riverwalk beach was closed because the trail to the beach was washed out by severe erosion caused by storm waves.
Officials were also forced to close Washington Park in Michigan City for a day last fall when a storm surge inundated the parking lot.
Just before Christmas, the Porter County Board of Commissioners issued an emergency disaster declaration for the Porter County lakefront in response to significant erosion. That included traffic restrictions on Lakefront Drive.
And on Friday, the mayor of Portage issued an emergency declaration because of high water levels threatening homes and other structures on the shore. Similar resolutions have been issued by town councils in Beverly Shores and Ogden Dunes.
The situation along Indiana's Lake Michigan shoreline is reaching a critical point, officials say.
"Lake Superior and Lake Michigan-Huron remain near record-highs for this time of year, and although they are expected to continue their seasonal declines in January, levels are expected to remain high over the next several months and may again exceed record-highs if wet conditions continue in 2020."
That's the dire word from Charles Sidick of the Watershed Hydrology Branch of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers–Detroit District, in the monthly update from the International Lake Superior Board of Control.
"As a result, there will continue to be a significantly increased risk of shoreline erosion, lakeshore flooding and coastal damages through the winter," Sidick said. "The International Lake Superior Board of Control advises all those that may be affected to prepare for potentially severe coastal impacts, especially during periods of strong winds and high waves."
Lake Michigan-Huron water levels remained stable last month, the report noted, but that's not necessarily a good thing. On average the level declines about 2 inches in December.
The lakes are currently 1.6 inches above the record-high beginning-of-month level of 1987; 37 inches above average; and 17 inches above last year’s beginning-of-January level, Sidick said.
To get a better handle on the problem, the Board of Control and its Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management Committee have posted a voluntary online questionnaire to allow property owners to discuss impacts of high water levels.
Such input is "critical to the board and the GLAM Committee as we work to better understand and predict impacts of high Great Lakes water levels," the agency said.
The questionnaire is available at ijc.org/en/glam/watershed/questionnaire/high-water-levels-2019.
Northwest Indiana communities should be able to provide plenty of input.
The declaration by Porter County commissioners, issued Dec. 17, says the county's Lake Michigan shoreline "is currently experiencing extreme erosion ... attributed to a combination of high water levels coupled with storm activity, producing surge and high waves.
"Many areas along the shoreline have seen significant losses in beachfront, which buffers the effect of the water, thereby exposing structures to direct threat. These include critical infrastructure such as main roadways, water lines, electrical feeds and natural gas supplies. Unaddressed continued erosion will only increase the threat ... impacting homes numbering in the thousands as well as business entities."
The declaration, in effect for 30 days, calls for a 15 mph speed limit on Lakefront Drive in Beverly Shores; a ban on heavy commercial loads without permission from town officials; and continued parking restrictions.
“The substantial erosion of the shoreline this season is threatening private homes and public infrastructure," state Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, said of Porter County's action. "Porter County rightfully declared an emergency ...
"With this crisis looming along Lake Michigan, I hope the governor will seize the opportunity to declare a state of emergency for the area and allow local communities to access federal money that is available through FEMA,” Tallian said.
In Beverly Shores, high water levels and erosion issues forced the closure of the National Park's Lake View area.
"Lake View parking lot and beach access is temporarily closed due to hazardous conditions resulting from erosion," an alert posted by the National Lakeshore said. "This closure is necessary for the maintenance of public health and safety. This closure will remain in effect ... to May 1, 2020, or until further notice."
A similar notice had earlier been posted, again until at least May, for the Portage Riverwalk beach.
And at Mount Baldy in Michigan City, the National Park issued this advisory: "Use caution when visiting Mount Baldy Trail and beach area. The dune and shoreline are constantly changing due to weather and lake levels. Obey all trail markers and warning signs to be safe."
Paul Labovitz, superintendent of the National Park, said park personnel are working to "fight beach erosion at our Lake View location in partnership with the Town of Beverly Shores. Lakefront Drive is threatened by rising lake levels and storm severity," he said.
Sand barriers and traps are being put up along what is left of the beach at the base of Lakefront Drive. The hope is to keep water and waves from causing further erosion to the shoreline, which in some areas is less than 10 feet from the roadway. Stairways that once went down to the beach now jut out into the air several feet above the beach.
In other areas, no beach remains, just rocks and sheer dropoffs, with the bases of trees under water.
In issuing her emergency declaration Friday, in effect for a week, Portage Mayor Sue Lynch called on state and federal authorities to do more. The declaration states the city "has been impacted by or is immediately threatened by a natural and manmade disaster," with natural erosion exacerbated by manmade structures and high water levels.
“Indiana Dunes National Park is a gem and it must be protected," Lynch said. "I am declaring this emergency because we need to act before it is too late. I am calling on the state and federal governments to work with surrounding communities to address this serious public safety issue.”
According to the National Park Service, "At more than 580 feet above sea level, Lake Michigan’s water level remains well above the long-term average. The higher lake level, in combination with recent storm waves, has resulted in continued erosion and narrower beaches along the Lake Michigan shoreline."
Labovitz summed up the situation: "Lesson learned is the lake is boss."