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'Catastrophic Erosion' Threatens To Swallow Lake Erie's Coastline

Elizabeth Miller
Great Lakes Today
The phase two site of Euclid's waterfront project, which is set to begin in 2018.

Lisa Kenion lives in Euclid, Ohio, right off of Lake Erie. She’s a member of the Moss Point Beach Club, a neighborhood with a private little patch of lakefront property.

“Every Friday night, if the weather is good in the summer, there’s a group of people that come down and we watch the sunset together,” Kenion said.

But a recent storm threatened the beach club’s lakefront oasis.

A chunk of land fell off their bluff and right next to the lake. Caution tape wraps around a bench and a fence along the lakefront.

“We’ve had to move that fence – not since I was here, but a couple of times during its/our history,” Kenion said. “They’ve lost a significant amount of land. And we don’t want to lose anymore.”

Lake Erie water levels have been higher than average for the last two years. With the arrival of heavy rains this spring, coastal land is disappearing.

Because of this, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Scudder Mackey says erosion rates are increasing – they’re close to three or four feet per year

“We saw a very significant increase in the number of phone calls we received about erosion that was occurring on people’s private property,” said Mackey.

Credit Elizabeth Miller / Great Lakes Today
Great Lakes Today
Moss Point Beach Club recently lost a patch of land in a recent storm.

The state is helping by offering property owners a simplified permit application designed for emergency situations with “catastrophic erosion,” according to Mackey. The new temporary permit speeds up a usually slow process to a few months.

The state also offers free consultations to lakefront property owners. An engineer surveys the shoreline and offers guidance on the best way to protect it – for example, using large rocks to block the waves.

But any new structure along the shoreline requires the state’s approval.

“We want to make sure materials that are used are safe, not broken up blocks of concrete with rebar sticking out, or asphalt,” Mackey said.

Kenion and her beach club plan to add native plants to the landscape of their bluff – it's more cost effective for them. But that won’t keep their land from breaking down and falling into the lake if high water levels and increased rain persist.

Kenion says the group would like to see some grant money made available.

“We have had to do some fundraising for ourselves in the past, and we did that – we took responsibility for that ourselves,” Kenion said. “But the scale you would need… I don’t think my GoFundMe site would cover it.”

Mackey says state money isn’t an option.

“It’s not appropriate to spend taxpayer dollars to protect private property in this way," Mackey said. "It’s a benefit to that individual private property owner.”

A few streets from Moss Point Beach, Euclid mayor Kirsten Holzheimer Gail points out the city’s new waterfront project. The city completed the first part of the project, the Sims Park Fishing Pier and Trails, in 2013.

The next step is creating a quarter-mile trail along the shoreline, above what’s currently a muddy slope of trees and trash. Euclid’s plan aims to make more of its waterfront accessible to the public, but the city’s community projects manager Allison Lukacsy-Love says there is more to it.

“We’re doing double duty - restoring natural habitat, but what we’re really doing is mitigating this erosion problem,” said Lukacsy-Love.

Euclid’s increased erosion rates have qualified the city for funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.

“It is actually a Pre-Disaster Mitigation Fund that they have set up,” explained Lukacsy-Love. “Euclid receiving this funding is precedent-setting. It’s one of the first times a community has applied for this type of funding on the Great Lakes, and the first time it’s been awarded.”

Mayor Holzheimer Gail wants construction on Phase 2 of the waterfront project to get underway sooner rather than later.

“We're certainly concerned that we don’t want more erosion to happen and have to change what the project looks like,” she said.

Lake levels typically reach their seasonal high in mid-June, so the worst may be over –but the natural resources department says water level variability will become more frequent in years to come.

Reporter/producer Elizabeth Miller joined ideastream after a stint at NPR headquarters in Washington D.C., where she served as an intern on the National Desk, pitching stories about everything from a gentrified Brooklyn deli to an app for lost dogs. Before that, she covered weekend news at WAKR in Akron and interned at WCBE, a Columbus NPR affiliate. Elizabeth grew up in Columbus before moving north to attend Baldwin Wallace, where she graduated with a degree in broadcasting and mass communications.