In Duluth, shoring up Superior's encroachment on Park Point

Water surrounds an area of land that is eroded.
Dredged material used to replenish a portion of the Park Point Beach that is being steadily eroded by higher water levels on Lake Superior and stronger storms takes a roundabout path to its final destination.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Gale Kerns has lived on Minnesota Point, the 7-mile spit of sand that juts into Lake Superior from downtown Duluth, since 1983. His house in the city’s Park Point neighborhood backs up to the long beach that lines the entire point. 

Over the nearly 40 years he’s lived there, he’s seen a lot of storms. 

But he never saw anything quite like what happened in October 2017, when winds over 50 mph drove huge waves relentlessly against the shore, washing away a fence and 8 feet of his yard. 

"Everything was gone,” he recalled. “There was absolutely nothing left here at the end of that day.”

Kerns spent $10,000 rebuilding his yard — and the fence, which is now anchored in concrete barriers that weigh 4,000 pounds each.

Kerns’ yard has since survived several other large storms that have battered Duluth and other communities along the Great Lakes in recent years, where high winds, together with record-high lake levels, have caused tens of millions of dollars in damage. 

Late last year, the residents of Park Point tried to take stock of the havoc the storms have wrought. Concerned residents formed a committee to address the erosion and high water, and surveyed their neighbors to learn how widespread the damage was. Of 95 respondents, 84 percent reported damage to their property. 

A person leans over a fence that separates his yard and beach.
Park Point homeowner Gale Kerns' talks about waves that would splash against his reinforced fence last week in Duluth. Kerns installed the fence as the beach in front of his Park Point home was steadily eroded by Lake Superior over the past several years.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

"I think most of our community was surprised at how many people were affected by the water,  and how many people had already spent money and taken action to do something about it,” said Hamilton Smith, who chairs the committee. 

Armed with that information, the group approached the city of Duluth for help. City officials then turned to the Army Corps of Engineers. Every year, the Corps dredges sediment out of the Duluth-Superior Harbor that clogs up its 18 miles of shipping channels. 

Now, that sediment is becoming a beach. Starting last month, workers have been taking barge-loads of it, mixing it with water and then piping it to the beaches of Park Point. The slurry of muddy sand is being jetted out onto the beach 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 

The difference, already, is startling.

"Before this project, the shoreline was significantly closer to the residents' houses here. There's plenty of pictures that can show that,” said Monica Anderson, the Army Corps of Engineers’ project engineer in Duluth. 

Now the beach stretches 50 feet out from shore, about two and a half times as wide as the eroded beach further down the shore that hasn't been replenished with new sand yet. 

By the end of September, workers plan to have sprayed some 50,000 cubic yards of new sediment on a 12-block long stretch of beach, beginning just past the concrete pier that guides ships into the Duluth canal under the Aerial Lift Bridge. 

That's enough sand to cover a football field about 25 feet deep. 

A temporary fix

Kerns is happy with the project, which is adding beach right in front of his place. Still, he knows it's not a permanent solution. Wind and waves will continue to erode it away. 

"Three to four years from now, we'll have a lot less beach than you could see here," he said.

That's because water in Lake Superior is still about a foot above normal. And climate change is expected to continue to create more big rain storms over the lakes. 

A overhead view of a beach that is eroded by waves from a lake.
In this aerial photo, a loader moves dirt, sand and dredged materials along a portion of Park Point.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

But it’s also because Minnesota Point has been choked off from the supply of sand that created it in the first place. 

The point was built by the natural movement of sediment, carried into Lake Superior by the rivers that feed it. 

But that movement of sediment is now blocked by the two shipping canals built in the late 1800s on either end of the point, explains John Swenson, an environmental sciences professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth. 

"They extend out into the lake and as such interrupt those conveyor belts of sand that are coming from the south shore and the north shore [of Lake Superior],” said Swenson. “As a result that, basically starves what we call Minnesota Point of its sand. And as a result, Minnesota Point is slowly drowning."

In some areas, Swenson said, the point is losing, on average, a meter of land a year to erosion. 

Over the next several years, Swenson plans to monitor the evolution of the new extended beach, to create models of how subsequent efforts to replenish the beach might affect different parts of the Park Point spit. 

Many homeowners are pushing for more frequent beach replenishment. The Army Corps of Engineers deposited dredged material at the opposite end of Park Point last summer. Before that, the federal agency hadn’t added sediment to the beach since the late 1990s. 

Two people wearing hard hats and safety vests stand in front of barriers
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers area engineer Steven Brossart and project engineer Monica Anderson discuss the project.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

“It’s a challenging project,” explains Corps engineer Steve Brossart. 

The first priority of the engineers who maintain the waterways around Duluth is to preserve navigation. So, every year the Corps figures out the most pressing areas in the harbor to dredge. Then they test the sediment — for risks to human health, grain size, turbidity — to determine whether it can be safely reused. 

Much of the sediment is too silty. What has been dredged this year, though, is about 85 percent sand, making it suitable to spray on Park Point. 

Dirt and sand flows out of a pipe onto eroded land.
Dredged material from the Duluth Superior harbor flows onto Park Point last Tuesday.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

But there are also additional projects competing for the sediment. This year, more than half the dredged material will be used to replenish a small island in the Duluth-Superior harbor that provides critical habitat for threatened birds

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wants to reuse the sediment it dredges out of the harbor because it’s running out of room to store it. The agency built a disposal facility in 1978. But it’s filling up. It only has about five years of remaining capacity. 

That’s why, since 2012, Brossart said, the Corps has worked hard to find beneficial locations for the dredged material — for wildlife habitat, or, in the case of Park Point, for erosion control.

“It's definitely a win-win,” he said. 

A barge floating in the water with wildflowers growing in the foreground.
A barge sends a slurry of dredged material from the Duluth-Superior harbor to a portion of Park Point that was rapidly eroding over the last couple years.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

A love-hate relationship

Meanwhile, Park Point residents are taking it upon themselves to protect their homes from encroaching waters. 

Dawn Buck and her husband, who live on the harbor side of the Point, spent $6,000 to raise the wooden seawall holding back the lake from their backyard. They also hauled in truckloads of dirt to raise the entire yard by a foot.  

"That's the thing about Park Point,” said Buck. “You move here because you love the water. But there's this love-hate relationship. You know, too much water, too little water, water in the wrong place. That's the stress."

A person gestures while standing in a grassy yard near the water.
Dawn Buck's yard, on the Duluth-Superior Harbor, has experienced issues over the last several years from higher water levels in the harbor. When strong storms affect Duluth, water is pushed into the harbor through the shipping canals and can rise more than a foot in a matter of minutes causing erosion and other issues.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Next door to Buck, high lake water has flooded her neighbor’s basement. Two doors down, the rising lake nearly reached the home of another neighbor, Keith McLaughlin, three years ago. 

Since then he’s purchased flood insurance, and spent $35,000 to have giant boulders hauled in by barge and placed inside the lake on the other side of his seawall.

“This will protect us from waves,” he said, looking at the costly protections in his backyard. “But when the water levels rise, this won't do anything.” 

A group of Park Point residents has begun work drafting a long-term strategic plan for the point, to ensure this delicate ecosystem and important resource is resilient for the next half-century against flooding and coastal erosion. 

“We either have to look at mitigation of some sort on a permanent basis,” said Gale Kerns, “or this will not be a livable place a few generations down the road.”

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