Climate change brings ongoing damage and disruption in several WI communities

Jason Jelinek, a Kewaunee alderman, remembers when the cliffs along the small city’s lakefront were full of trees. But now some of the space is barren as the ground has eroded away, sending the greenery tumbling into Lake Michigan which has risen to levels as high as he can remember.

And as the lake’s water level approaches record highs, it appears as though the situation will only get worse. The lake’s surface is six to eight inches from cresting the seawall guarding the city’s harbor. On the usually-dry side of that seawall, a gas station, a fish market, a marina and a campground have had to deal with water and debris that overtop the wall when strong winds blow from the east, Jelinek said. Last year, the lot was underwater for about a week, he said, and the resulting algae made for slippery surfaces at times.

“I don’t think it’s gotten to the point where it’s going to put anyone out of business just yet,” said Jelinek, who is running unopposed to become the city’s new mayor in April. “It gets really close, like people are biting their nails, and then thank God it recedes.”

Jason Jelinek stands near the harbor in Kewaunee, WI

Kewaunee is one of many lakefront communities being affected by a changing climate as quickening erosion, worsening storms and rising water levels wreak havoc on residents and governments. To the south, a Jan. 11 storm spewed rubble and ice in Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha counties. Racine Mayor Cory Mason declared a state of emergency last Wednesday, and Racine County Executive Jonathan Delagrave followed suit on Friday. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported “catastrophic” damage to the Port of Milwaukee. A shoreline home in Pleasant Prairie was deemed uninhabitable after partially collapsing into the lake; a house just north in Somers was razed last year after literally dangling over the water.

“As this happens more and more, and as the climate is changing and the lake levels are rising building a resilient lakefront is going to be something that we’re going to have to think about for the future,” Mason told WDJT.

Severe erosion damage stretched south of the state line to Chicago and northwestern Indiana.

The issues will only compound if no action is taken, according to Charlie Shabica, professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University’s Department of Earth Science. Waters naturally rise and fall, and Lake Michigan’s average range has stayed relatively steady for the past 1,000 years, said Shabica, a coastal scientist who studies the Great Lakes. What has changed is that — as a result of climate change — the water levels are reaching highs and lows more quickly, and storms are becoming more intense, resulting in larger and stronger waves, which in turn speed up coastal erosion, he said. 

“I’m a paranoid optimist, and I’m thinking that things can get better, but we really have to put a lot of work into it,” Shabica said.

The Army Corps of Engineers is forecasting Lake Michigan’s water levels to surpass record highs every month through June, said Lauren Fry, the Corps of Engineer’s technical lead for Great Lakes hydrology. Levels have not been this high since 1986. But the return to the current height was preceded by record lows less than a decade ago, in 2012-13. In 1986, the previous record low was in 1965, leaving a 21-year gap between records.

“We had very wet conditions, not only last year but also just if you look over the past several years … from a combination of increased precipitation and runoff and reduced evaporation,” Fry said.

There are about 4½ miles of shoreline in Pleasant Prairie, but only about a mile of that is public property, said Village Administrator Nathan Thiel. That means that anti-erosion measures such as revetments, riprap and jetties are largely the responsibility of private property owners, he said. And those measures are not cheap, but the village has been working to protect the public shoreline with them; however, the village evaluated its entire shoreline a few years ago, a process that involved grading the erosion protection to determine where further issues could arise.

“When it comes to climate change, that’s a huge factor, and I think it’s more global than just the village. It can’t be solved by just the village,” Thiel said. “But clearly the village has our role there, if we can try to participate and try to diminish the impact and the influence of climate change.”

Jelinek, the Kewaunee alderman, said he’d like to see the city be more proactive in preventing erosion from becoming a larger issue.

“This could happen … more often, or it could become a worse result in future years,” he said. He added, “I think that climate is something that is happening, as to what the level is, [that’s] hard to say.”

Tom Kleiman Jr., owner of Accurate Marine and Storage in Kewaunee, said he was not concerned with climate change because erosion only becomes a major issue when the water levels are high. He addressed the City Council last week, pleading for them to be proactive in flooding and erosion protection moving into the spring as water levels rise.

Reached by phone Friday, he said water likely won’t reach his business, but noted that flooding can have a negative impact on the entire city, which relies on boaters and fishermen visiting.

“Tourism is a big part of Kewaunee County and down in the City of Kewaunee, for sure,” Kleiman said. “…We have to make sure we’re doing everything we can to get people to keep wanting to come here.”

That’s easier said than done, though. As a city of about 3,000 residents, Kewaunee has limited resources to deal with flooding and no real plans in place to manage it, Jelinek said, “because it happens as rarely as it does. There’s not a playbook for anybody to go to.”