Park Point Residents Work to Protect Properties and Find Funding to Stop Erosion and Flooding

DULUTH, Minn. – If you could choose any neighborhood to live in in Duluth, Park Point is one of the most desirable.

A beautiful six-mile isle on Lake Superior, there’s no better place to be close to the water in the city.

However, in recent years, Duluthians who are living on Park Point are battling the power of Lake Superior to protect their properties.

Streets and basements are flooding, backyards are eroding, and waves are battering fences.

Now, Park Point residents are sounding the alarm while getting creative with property protection.

Hamilton Smith, a longtime Park Point resident, created a group called the Erosion and High Water Committee last year to find out how much his neighbors were suffering from erosion and flooding problems on their properties.

“We formed this committee in July, and we did a survey just to get a handle on what was going on on Park Point, so we got a survey, we got almost 100 respondents, so that gave us a picture anyway of what was going on,” Smith said.

What the survey found is just how badly Lake Superior is saturating and eating away at properties.

“There are people we have talked to who have spent $50,000 a lot of people are in the 10,15, 20-thousand dollar range on trying to mitigate the problems the water has caused,” Smith explained.

Homeowners’ headaches are fueled by a couple of problems. One, the waves of Lake Superior are eroding the land. Two, storms cause Lake Superior to flood Park Point, backing up the storm and sewer drains, with water washing over the streets and yards.

Another Park Point resident, Gale Kerns, has lived on the isle since the 1980s.

The storm that Kerns and others won’t soon forget is the one that rolled in in October 2017.

“Every wave rolled up here and out into the street,” Kerns said. “There was a lot of damage…all of the fences disappeared. I had a retaining wall underneath our fence, that was totally washed away, and we lost about six feet of property.”

After that, he rebuilt the fence as a fortress.

“These jersey barriers are four-foot long, I think they’re four-foot tall, they weigh 2,000 pounds…and then we put a fence up, simply a wooden fence that we got at Menards,” Kerns explained, standing on one of the barriers. “It has been extremely effective. We have had no damage.”

The price of the new, fortified barriers? $10,000.

Both Smith and Kerns live on the lakeside of Park Point.

Those who live on the bayside, like Paul McLeete, are also dropping thousands of dollars to protect their homes.

“We had over $10,000 of work done here,” McLeete said while in his backyard.

McLeete hasn’t been there long; only since March of last year.

However, he quickly realized that there wasn’t time to play the waiting game to see how bad the erosion could get.

He paid a company to usher in truck loads of dirt to rebuild his backyard, and rip rap to break up the wave energy that was tearing at the shore.

“We needed to bring a lot of fill in here, and so there was maybe about 10 loads of dirt fill…probably another 10 loads of rip rap rock that were brought in for our 40 feet to fill in,” McLeete said. “The ground now is about 2 feet higher.”

While his land is now rebuilt and protected, he worries about his neighbors.

“Main concerns now are our neighbors on either side of us, when we look out now the water is coming higher and higher during these weather events and such, and our neighbors still seem even lower and lower,” McLeete said. “You see people dealing with the situation a lot of different ways, but if you look at these houses they’re all put in differently. They all have different landscapes.”

Over at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, associate professor and associate department chair in earth and environmental sciences, John Swenson, has been studying erosion caused by Lake Superior for several years after he noticed it happening where he lives on the North Shore.

“What people are unaware of in this area is the long-term lake level is actually rising as well, so there is a very slow approximately 2 to 3 millimeters a year, which is pretty slow, rise in lake level,” Swenson explained. “So every year, we’re drowning a little bit .”

Swenson says about every ten years, the Lake Superior water level will rise, and then fall.

Right now, it’s in a decade of rising, with more precipitation and less evaporation.

“Lake levels are high right now,” Swenson said. “If you run the clock back to 2012, lake levels were near record lows. So it’s the short-term fluctuations in lake level that are driving the problem right now.”

He said that while Lake Superior has likely had this rise and fall cycle for a long time, man-made structures are exacerbating the erosion issue.

Specifically, he’s talking about the two breakwaters off of Canal Park that help protect the port of entry.

“The most concerning issue to me is the starvation of Park Point of its natural source of sand that keeps it afloat, so to speak,” Swenson explained. “And that starvation is due…overwhelmingly by the presence of the Superior entry breakwaters which are trapping the natural supply of sand that feeds Park Point coming from bluff erosion on the South Shore.”

An aerial map shows just how much has eroded away.

“You can see this very clearly by looking at 1938 air photos compared to today,” Swenson said. “Basically, we’re in kind of a losing game right now.”

The big question is, what can be done?

Neighbors on the Erosion and High Water Committee want to encourage the Army Corps of Engineers to drop beach nourishment to the shores every three to five years after dredging the canal. It’s something the Corps did back in 1996.

“They increased the size of the beach tremendously, all the way down to the ship canal down to 12th Street,” Kerns said. “The difficulty with that is that it was fine sand and it blew a lot so for three years people had a lot of sand blowing into their yards, but we had a real nice beach for awhile.”

Just like how the city of Duluth is adding boulders in a precise, geometric layout to break up Lake Superior’s wave energy to protect the Lakewalk, Swenson said a similar approach could be taken underwater around Park Point.

“I think the most pragmatic and probably aesthetically-pleasing solution would be to use those large rocks and place those large rocks somewhat offshore so that on a nice day…you might not even see them, so they might stick their heads above water a little bit, but during a large storm basically when waves are much higher, then they are able to dissipate wave energy under those conditions, and help to preserve the sand that’s there,” Swenson explained.

Of course, solutions like this require funding and a lot of government coordination.

In this case, it takes partnerships on the local, state, and federal levels.

According to Jim Filby Williams, the Director of Parks, Properties, and Libraries with the city of Duluth, the gears are already turning.

“The first thing we’ve been doing is getting in close collaboration with our partners the Army Corps of Engineers, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and DNR,” Filby Williams said. “We are studying some of the longer term actions we can take to mitigate some of these hazards.”

The city is also addressing the sewer and storm drain overflows on Park Point.

“It will not eliminate the problem, but it will alleviate those two problems quite a bit.”

What you might call a unique ‘neighborhood association,’ the Erosion and High Water Committee, is not even a year old yet, but it has already got the eyes and ears of those who can bring the funding and action to remedy the park point erosion and flooding issues.

“It is not too late,” Smith said. “We are not in disaster mode here. We are just in warning mode.”

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