In Deep Water: Protecting shoreline property a double-edged sword

Rising waters are prompting property owners to invest in costly shoreline protection projects.

But the flood of permit applications has alarmed some, who say that these projects can have a lasting impact on the environment.

The uptick of shoreline protection applications tracked by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (EGLE) has gone from 475 shoreline protection permit applications in 2017, 636 in 2018 and 730 in 2019.

In the first half of fiscal year 2020 alone (October 2019 – March 2020), EGLE had already received 1,058 permit applications.

Any property holder seeking to conduct a shoreline restoration or protection project must apply for a permit through EGLE, whether the shoreline is on an inland lake or a Great Lake; shoreline projects along the Great Lakes also require a second permit from the United States Army Corps of Engineers.

Locally, those numbers are climbing, too. Based on preliminary third-quarter data, EGLE estimates it will have received 86 permit applications from Grand Traverse County during the first three quarters of the 2020 fiscal year. An additional 87 have come in from Leelanau County in that time.

Though permits have increased, EGLE reps say they are keeping an eye on the environment.

Jerrod Sanders, an assistant division director for EGLE, says the department’s permitting process is “robust,” determining 1) if shoreline interference is necessary and 2) how that interference might be executed in the least environmentally impactful way possible.

“The permitting process is sort of a balancing act between whatever the needs are for that private property and then also trying to protect the use of the Great Lakes,” Sanders explained.

Part of that process includes what EGLE calls an “alternatives analysis,” intended to find the least environmentally impactful options for preserving the shoreline.

“So, for example, if someone wants to put in a vertical seawall, in most cases they would have a feasible and prudent alternative by using riprap or large stone,” he continued. “Those are comparatively less impactful alternatives because they are more natural material, they reduce some of the near-shore scour, and they reduce the amount of wave energy that gets transferred onto neighboring properties.”

Even with wave energy reduced, shoreline properties and ecosystems are still affected by installing stone and riprap, says Heather Smith, the Grand Traverse Baykeeper for The Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay.

“We’re encouraging people to live with a bit of erosion in these high-water years, if possible,” Smith said.

The problem comes with removing the shoreline’s natural vegetation along with installing stone, riprap or a breakwall.

“There’s been a tendency during our high-water years to harden our shorelines by putting in those seawalls and riprap walls and removing the vegetation at the land-water interface,” Smith said. “The goal in those cases is to try to stop the water and erosion as quickly as we can.”

Smith and her colleagues encourage property owners to aim for natural shorelines, in part because the process of “hard armoring” the shore can damaging in the long run.

Hardened shorelines – whether they’re armored with riprap, stone or seawalls – can destroy native near-shore vegetation, which in turn means a loss of habitat for fish, amphibians, and other wildlife.

In addition, a hardened shoreline doesn’t dissipate wave energies, but sends the excess wave power onto neighboring properties, speeding up the process of erosion for those sections of shore.

Hard armoring the shoreline also stops the natural fluctuations of sands, which help create the sandy beaches that make Traverse City a summertime destination.

EGLE’s Sanders notes that, if property owners in the state of Michigan were to continue hard armoring the shoreline without restriction, “we’d eventually end up without beaches, because the beaches and the near-shore sand areas are dependent on those sand additions.”

Natural fluctuations in the Great Lakes will eventually move in property owners’ favor, said Smith.

“…(T)hose water levels are eventually going to come back down,” she said.

Of course, there are plenty of cases where property owners can neither live with erosion nor wait for the water level cycle hit a downward trend.

Cysilia Schaub, who works as part of the sales and estimating team at TruNorth Landscaping, says the majority of the jobs the business has done along the shoreline this year have incorporated hard armor techniques like boulders and riprap. These strategies, while extreme, have become increasingly necessary to save in-jeopardy properties.

“It’s a pretty harsh approach,” Schaub said of hard-armoring. “However, on Lake Michigan, with the wave energy that you get (along those shorelines), hard-armoring is really one of your only viable options if your property is at risk.”

Smaller inland lakes and wetlands receive a slightly different treatment, Schaub said.

“When you get into some of the smaller inland lakes or other wetland areas, you have a lot more flexibility for what you can do, and you can take a more natural approach,” she said. “But when you’re on the big lake or you’re on the bay, you really have to think about what’s actually going to stay in place, what’s going to be stable. With the waters this high, your only real option is to put in some sort of large-scale installation, like boulders, riprap, or a seawall.”

Nathan Griswold, the founder and president of the green roof company Inhabitect, disagrees.

“The shorelines that are doing the best right now are the ones that are vegetated,” said Griswold, who also offers shoreline restoration services.

The owner is passionate about the idea that natural shorelines can be every bit as stable as hard armored ones.

“You can hard armor a shoreline with steel or large boulders, but in time, that is going to cause more ecological issues,” he said.

Comparatively, a natural shoreline populated by native vegetation not only provides ecosystems for near-shore wildlife, but also sows root systems deep into the soils that help hold the shoreline together.

The challenge, Griswold says, is that EGLE’s permitting process is not designed to favor natural shoreline projects.

When Inhabitect applies for a permit to put in new vegetation along a shoreline site, there is no predefined category in EGLE’s permitting process for bioengineering/natural shoreline strategies.

Because these strategies are less common, less tested and ultimately less proven than hard armoring techniques, they involve more complex – and more expensive – permitting processes.

As a result, Griswold feels there isn’t much motivation for the average property owner to prioritize a more eco-friendly shoreline protection project – particularly if their matter is urgent.

“I believe natural shorelines are a great solution, and I have multiple permits moving forward right now that I feel are good solutions for certain sites,” Griswold said. “But (EGLE) made me jump through way more hoops to get those permits. If I had done it the other way and chosen a hard-armor technique, those jobs would already be built.”

Griswold’s goal is to connect with The Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay, Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council in Petoskey and other northern Michigan environmental organizations to lobby EGLE and the Army Corps of Engineers to write a more intuitive permitting process for natural shoreline projects. That type of public-private partnership, he thinks, could do a lot to move the needle and establish bioengineering as a viable, affordable and popular option for shoreline protection and restoration work.

For his part, Sanders agrees that natural shorelines are the best bet for the Great Lakes, particularly since even these reportedly historic high water levels are just part of another natural cycle.

“The erosion that’s happening on the shoreline right now, this has happened before and it’s going to happen again,” Sanders said. “We keep saying these are record highs – and they are – but they’re record highs in the 120 years of records we have.”

The process, Sanders says, is a “natural” one.

“The Great Lakes have been around for 8,000 years. So the lakes have almost certainly come up like this before,” he said. “We think they’re going to go back down, but then they’re going to come up again. This erosion process during high water is actually a natural process.”