Neighbor to neighbor, living with the Great Lakes

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The Lakewalk, Duluth, after a torrential storm (Andrew Slade, 2018)

By Andrew Slade, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

First to go was the line of sandbags we’d put down in case the waves crested the dunes. The waves kept cutting away. Then it was an old line of wooden snowfence and metal posts we’d put in five or ten years ago. Then the waves took a little white pine tree I’d planted, with more hope than wisdom, about four years ago. All lost to the surf. Dressed in layers of rain and sand protection, I went out mid-day and pulled back the old used lawn furniture, away from the surf. When darkness fell, the gale warning was still in effect. One last white pine tree still stood in the dunes.

At least half a mile of roaring froth was headed directly at my house. The October storm had been building for a day out on Lake Superior. The stronger and longer the wind blew, the bigger the waves grew. While we watched helplessly, the churning waves bashed into the dunes between the waves and our house. They began, foot by foot, to eat away at the dune.

Most days I feel really lucky to live on the Lake Superior beach. In the heat of summer, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. Since we moved in to our 100-year-old house on the beach in Duluth, my wife and I had been cautiously working with nature to rebuild the natural sand dunes that separated Lake Superior’s powerful waves and currents from our house and yard.

But Lake Superior is more powerful than any one person or any meager line of dunes. The dune that the breezes and shifting sands had built over 20 years, the waves took it away in 20 hours.

When morning came, the wind had stopped and the lake was amazingly calm. I could see from the window that last pine tree was still standing. We ventured out our gate. I gasped when I saw that about two-thirds of “our” dune was gone. That lone pine tree, once ten feet from the edge of the dune, was now precariously on the edge of the dune itself.

The last pine standing

I walked to work that morning along the Lake Superior beach. For about four city blocks, almost every yard had been impacted by the waves. Solid wooden fences were gone. Foot-thick timber walls had been ripped apart. Strands of driftwood curved into backyards where the waves had breached over the dunes and walls. A lone migrating sandpiper had somehow survived the waves and wind and was back on the shoreline, looking for nourishment before continuing on to South America.

Neighbors began talking to neighbors. Some who lost fencing were already re-building that afternoon. Some were just clearing the debris. An older couple in a house far too big for them was nowhere to be seen, their galvanized metal fence in disarray.

This was the biggest storm and the biggest waves any ever remembered, at least since the storm that sank the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975. After a few years of above average rainfall, Lake Superior was nearly a foot higher than it “normally” is for October.

Our beach neighborhood is a complicated mix of resources, people and politics. Most of the houses are old, even older than our centenarian. The sand on the beach came from lake currents, from the glaciers, and from the St. Louis River. The only reason there is a beach is because of that complex of forces and resources. The water levels rise and fall, mostly due to weather trends but partly also due to the International Joint Commission’s work at the Sault Locks. City founders saw fit to keep the beach itself in public ownership, but the beach is disappearing.

This whole thing makes me think about government, about people working together, about what’s the best way to fix both individual and collective problems. With the beach disappearing, should it be individual action to save our own individual homes? Or should there be a broader, neighborhood-based, community response? And if it’s a community response, what’s the best level of government?

Is it the federal government? The piers that make up Duluth’s vital ship canal, built and maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers, block off the natural flow of sand and waves, so the four or five blocks in our neighborhood are, at least to my mind, dependent on the Army Corps of Engineers occasionally dumping loads of dredge spoils here, what they call “beach nourishment.” We could try complaining to the International Joint Commission or their International Lake Superior Board of Control, ask them to lower Lake Superior. But that would flood Lake Erie.

The Minnesota DNR could install a massive concrete breakwall along the beach, but that would destroy the beach itself.

What if we all just protected our own homes? My family worked thoughtfully over the decades to help nature rebuild the natural dune in front of our house, putting up snow fence and planting trees and beachgrass. Other neighbors dealt with the blowing sand by hiring a Bobcat every year or two and mowing the dunes down. Not to say “I told you so,” but those Bobcat users got far more water and waves into their yard.

One neighbor had installed concrete “jersey barriers” on their beach. During the October storm, these barriers channeled the surf away from their property and onto their neighbors’ property, increasing the neighbor’s damage. That’s definitely not the best way to fix the problem.

At our place, I’m going to tie up the lone pine tree so it doesn’t fall into the surf. I’m going to talk with my insurance agent about how best to protect my family and my assets. Next spring I’ll put out a new run of snow fencing to start rebuilding our dunes. And I’ll keep talking with my neighbors. If they want snow fencing up, I’ll show them how. If they set up a meeting with the mayor, the DNR, our county commissioner, I’ll join in and share my concerns.

As a human being, I act in my own interest. But as a neighborhood, we need to act in everyone’s interest. We like to think that we can control our world. The helplessness I felt in a Lake Superior storm reminds me that I cannot.

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