The history of human settlement around the Great Lakes is marked by structures designed to stabilize shorelines, protect property from flooding and erosion, or to accommodate commercial navigation or industry. Historically, these structures were made of wood or metal pilings, rock, or reinforced concrete. Many Great Lakes shorelines are marked by seawalls, revetments, breakwaters, groins, and jetties. Over the years, such "hard" engineering has been recognized to have its own environmental consequences.
For example, seawalls and revetments that line the water's edge with concrete or large stone may reduce the shoreline impact from wave action, but they also may cause beaches to narrow, limit public access to the beach, and can be unattractive. Groins and jetties designed to protect the shore from erosion or to keep sediment from building up in channels also trap sand on the updrift side and leave beaches on the downdrift side of littoral systems starved and prone to narrowing and erosion. In addition, hard engineering often has limited or no habitat value for fish and wildlife.
While traditional "hard" structures continue to be installed or maintained around the Great Lakes, rising awareness of their detrimental affects are leading to a call for "soft" engineering to protect the shore. Soft engineering is the use of ecological principles and practices to reduce erosion and achieve the stabilization and safety of shorelines, while enhancing habitat, improving aesthetics, and saving money. Soft engineering is achieved by using vegetation and other materials to soften the land-water interface.
The most popular "soft" shoreline protection is beach nourishment. Beach nourishment is practiced by placing material of preferably the same or larger grain size and density as the natural beach material on the eroded part of a beach to compensate for the lack of natural supply of beach material. Dune construction involves piling up beach quality stand to form protective dune fields that replace those washed away during severe storms. Wave screens, submerged breakwaters, and floating breakwaters are examples of other types of "soft" shoreline protection that do not disturb or change flow and still allow water and fish to pass through the structure. Many soft shoreline protection techniques, such as dune construction, include strategic vegetation to maximize an area's natural ability to absorb wind and wave energy. Because soft engineering uses living structures, which tend to mature and stabilize with time, soft engineering of shorelines is typically less costly to install and maintain than hard engineering. In addition to the "soft" methods mentioned above, regional sediment management has been effective in several areas of the Great Lakes. Regional sediment management has the potential to reintroduce sand to littoral systems, protect habitat, and reduce erosion and shoaling.
Presque Isle State Park in Pennsylvania has successfully implemented both "soft" and "hard" shoreline protection measures. The Pennsylvania Coastal Program funded studies on Presque Isle State Park, which is part of a 3,202 acre sand peninsula that attracts nearly 4 million visitors annually, to determine appropriate protection measures. The US Army Corps of Engineers and Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection have replenished Presque Isle beaches for many years. In an effort to end the costly nourishment cycle, and with the information obtained from the studies, the Corps and DEP built a series of 59 large offshore rubble mound breakwaters to stabilize the portion of Presque Isle State Park exposed to direct wave action. These structures appear to have reduced beach nourishment costs by as much as 50%.
Soft engineering also has great potential to address the issue of limited public access to many areas along the Great Lakes shore. Use of multiple-objective soft engineering of shorelines will likely increase public access.
The Great Lakes coast confronts a wide range of natural hazards from severe storms, floods, landslides and shoreline erosion. All of these coastal hazards threaten both lives and property-a problem that becomes more pressing as the coastal population continues to rise. Coastal erosion, deposition, and flooding can also be exacerbated by lake level regulation, water diversion and coastal resource use.
Great Lakes natural hazards generally fall into three categories:
Flooding from upland runoff, high lake levels and storm-induced surge (temporary water level changes); and,
Erosion of coastal bluffs, banks, beaches and near shore lake beds;
Damage to shoreline structures from storm waves
Despite billions of dollars for structural flood control, and other structural and non-structural measures, flood damages in the United States continue to escalate, approaching $6 billion annually. In the Great Lakes states, flood damage for 2003 totaled over $763 million. (Figure includes non-coastal flooding and ocean flooding for New York and Pennsylvania.)
Floodplains are part of the natural ecosystem and serve as natural filters and buffers, protecting nearby property from flood damage. Over the years, floodplain mangers have become more aware of the benefits of protecting floodplains, which has been incorporated into using "sustainability" criteria in development, economic, and resource use decision-making.
The Great Lakes coast is a dynamic area in which erosion and deposition are constantly taking place. When combined with severe weather or in developed areas, these processes can become hazards, undermining waterfront homes, businesses, and public infrastructure, eventually making them uninhabitable or unusable. Across the U.S., coastal erosion is responsible for approximately $500 million per year in property loss, including damage to structures and loss of land.
The hazards associated with living along the shores of the Great Lakes tend to appear in cycles. Bluff erosion, for example, is more likely to occur during storm events that coincide with periods of high water levels in the Great Lakes. Awareness of coastal hazards seems to ebb and flow in cycles too. Coastal property owners are acutely aware of hazards during periods of high water levels and especially right after a damaging storm or a bluff failure, but this awareness fades over time as the imminent threat to coastal property diminishes.
State coastal programs (and some state Sea Grant programs) provide technical assistance and grants to assist communities and homeowners, and others in planning for and coping with coastal hazards. For example, the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Coastal Natural Hazards outreach program assists Great Lakes engineers, contractors, local governments, shore property owners and other users in coping with natural coastal processes such as erosion and declining lake levels, and the clean-up of contaminated sediments, as well as coastal hazards such as rip currents, storm waves and storm surges.
Maritime heritage in the Great Lakes has a broad legacy. That legacy includes physical resources, such as historic shipwrecks, lighthouses and prehistoric archaeological sites. Great Lakes maritime heritage also includes archival documents, oral histories, and traditional seafaring and ecological knowledge of indigenous cultures. Maritime heritage resources add an important dimension to our understanding and appreciation of the Great Lakes' rich maritime legacy, and make us more aware of the critical need for us to be wise stewards of the lakes.
According to the National Park Service's Maritime Initiative, maritime heritage is about the people and communities that built ships, shipped goods, sailed ships, kept lights, rescued wrecks, fished waters, and kept the channels open. Maritime heritage is also about the use of waterways for commerce, transportation, defense, and recreation and the traditions and skills, arts and crafts, artifacts and documents, and buildings, structures, and vessels that reflect our past maritime endeavors.
As with natural resources, numerous user and interest groups, from archaeologists to recreational divers and tourists, seek to interact with maritime heritage resources in many different ways (exploration, photography, excavation, etc.). These maritime heritage resources also are impacted by natural factors such as storms, currents, corrosion and neglect. Responsible, informed decisions must be made on how to manage these resources for the enjoyment and appreciation of current and future generations. Maritime heritage resources are nonrenewable, so it is especially important that we protect these important links to our past. The Great Lakes region has an extraordinary maritime heritage and efforts are currently underway to protect and preserve that legacy.
NOAA's Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Underwater Preserve and the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center, a 20,000-square-foot facility in Alpena, Michigan, preserve and highlight the maritime heritage of the Great Lakes and the shipwrecks of Michigan's Thunder Bay. The center is housed in a former paper mill located in Alpena's historic downtown area. Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary protects a nationally significant collection of over 100 shipwrecks, spanning over a century of Great Lakes shipping history. Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary represents many "firsts" for the National Marine Sanctuary Program:
First Great Lakes sanctuary.
First sanctuary to focus solely on a large collection of underwater cultural resources.
First sanctuary located entirely in state waters
The Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society (GLSPS) was formed in May 1996 as an instrument to stabilize and restore our deteriorating shipwrecks of the Great Lakes region. The society is a non-profit tax exempt 501.c.3 organization whose members are divers, historians, and those who share a common love of shipwrecks and a vision of preserving these underwater treasures. The GLSPS was formed to deal with the unique technological and legal aspects of these underwater sites. The GLSPS is based in Minnesota.
Lighthouses have been guiding ships around dangerous navigation hazards and through fierce storms to fresh water ports in the Great Lakes since the early 1800's. Even today, with all the modern navigational tools, Lighthouses still play a vital roll in safe passage of any vessel that sails the Great Lakes. Lighthouses on the Great Lakes were built in all styles and types to assist merchants and recreational traffic in busy and often treacherous waters. Lighthouses in the Great Lakes offer a glimpse back into the rich maritime history of the region.
Traditional Great Lakes coastal-dependent uses include navigation, fishing, coastal tourism, and recreation. The Great Lakes serve as the nation's fourth sea coast by transporting vital commodities to and from the nation's heartland and also as a prime destination for recreational boating. This waterborne commerce is critical to the regional and national economy. The Great Lakes offer outstanding tourism and recreation opportunities, ranging from pristine wilderness activities in national parks to waterfront beaches in major cities. The Great Lakes fishery consists of a blend of native and introduced species, some of which are regularly restocked. Common catches include lake trout, salmon, walleye, perch, white fish, smallmouth bass, steelhead and brown trout. Among the thousands of coastal communities, parks, lighthouses and places of interest to tourists, the Great Lakes coast features the world's largest body of fresh water and other unique natural phenomena ranging from magnificent dune-lands to majestic cliffs. A well-defined four-season climate supports many types of recreation from ice fishing, skiing and snowmobiling in the winter to golf, fishing, boating and swimming in the summer.
Energy facility siting is also a coastal-dependent use. Existing or proposed energy facilities in the Great Lakes region include both traditional energy (oil and gas, electric, coal, nuclear, Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG)) and alternative facilities, such as offshore wind farms, and wave powered facilities. The greatest increase nationally in proposed or permitted facilities has been for LNG transport, transfer, conversion or storage facilities, and for offshore wind farms. Regionally, the Great Lakes states have reported several proposed or newly constructed energy facilities during their five year management review required under the Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA).
Recent increases in energy costs have made the development of alternative energy sources economically feasible, leading to more proposed energy facilities along the Great Lakes coast. Facilities that explore, develop, produce, transmit or transport energy or energy resources in coastal areas provide significant benefits to the Great Lakes and the nation in terms of energy, jobs and energy self-sufficiency. Electricity generation is responsible for 36% of carbon dioxide pollution, 64% of sulfur dioxide pollution, 26% of nitrogen oxide pollution, and 34% of mercury pollution in the U.S. Electricity generation from clean, renewable energy resources will reduce air pollution, increase the fuel diversity of our electric system, save natural resources, and provide a hedge against increases in the price of fossil fuels used for electric generation. These energy facilities, however, also have the potential to impact natural, historical, cultural, and/or aesthetic resources within the coastal zone.
Energy facilities can also conflict with the traditional coastal-dependent uses such as navigation, fishing, coastal tourism, and recreation. The CZMA includes language to ensure states have appropriate processes for siting these facilities in their coastal zones, which considers the national interest in energy production as well as the national interest in protecting coastal resources. In order to address energy needs, reduce coastal use conflicts and preserve coastal resources, state coastal management programs must have policies and planning processes to address energy and government facility siting that could have a detrimental affect on the coastal zone. Siting decisions should be made as part of an overall land-use plan and should include protection of air and water quality, taking into account the unique significance of the coastal zone.
Citizens of the Great Lakes are drawn to the water's edge to swim, to fish, to boat, or simply enjoy the scenery. However, this desire to be near or on the water is not always easily fulfilled. Private waterfront development, dispersed access points, residency requirements, and limited capacity at recreational facilities can thwart people's ability to use and enjoy the Great Lakes.
Each year, more than 180 million Americans visit our Nation's coasts, spending an average of 10 days. The most recent (1999-2000) National Survey on Recreation and the Environment found that approximately 77 million people nationwide visit the beach each year and 48 million go motor-boating. According to that same survey, coastal states received 80 percent of all U.S. tourism revenue, accounting for over $560 billion annually.
According to a 2007 Great Lakes Commission study, an estimated 911,000 registered boats operate upon the waters of the Great Lakes. Among all eight Great Lakes states there are 4.3 million registered boats. These boats and their owners generate direct and indirect economic impacts, including the number of businesses and jobs they support and the secondary effects that ripple through local economies. In 2003 spending on boats and boating in the Great Lakes region totaled nearly $16 billion, directly supporting 107,0000 jobs. With secondary effects factored in, recreational boating supports 240,0000 jobs, $19 billion in sales, $6.4 billion in personal income and $9.2 billion in value added.
Despite the popularity of coastal recreation, accessing the beach or shorefront can be difficult for the public. Undeveloped areas often lack the infrastructure (e.g., public beaches, public boat launches, parking lots, restrooms) to safely accommodate visitors. Many coastal areas are privately owned and are fenced off or otherwise barricaded from public use. Sometimes, people simply a lack of knowledge about where to go. Over the past few decades, increased demand has resulted in the conversion of shorefront open spaces to development, including the conversion of public marinas and boat launches to private uses. Finally, the continued growth in the sheer number of permanent coastal residents and temporary visitors means that, without the acquisition and construction of new access points or enhancement of existing access points (to support a greater number of users), the existing supply of access opportunities will become inadequate over time.
Once acquired or constructed, public access opportunities must also be maintained and operated, requiring a long term financial commitment by the public entities who manage public access sites. User groups may also have conflicts, such as beach-goers not wanting people on jet-skis near the shore. Finding an appropriate balance among these demands and needs is a challenge for coastal managers.
Moreover, recreation and public access brings its own environmental impacts. Public access facilities must be designed and built to minimize impacts to rare and sensitive natural features as well as to avoid exacerbating natural coastal hazards. Pollution from recreational sites and boating has also caused water-quality degradation.
Despite these challenges, recreational uses and public access provide a basis for protecting quality by attracting and involving people who recognize that protection of the ecosystem is essential to sustain the recreation that they value.
Coastal community development is that part of coastal management that ensures that growth and development do not occur at the expense of limited coastal resources. Coastal community development means working with local communities to plan for and accommodate new growth and development with a focus on supporting activities that depend on access to the coast or water-from ports and harbors, boat launches and beaches, to certain types of commercial development, like marinas and fishing boat charters.
The Great Lakes region is the third most populated coastal region in the United States with 27.5 million people, or 18 percent of the nation's total coastal population (as of 2003). Within the region, the 158 coastal counties constitute 28 percent of the total land area and contain 33 percent of the population, including 2 of the nation's 10 largest metropolitan areas: Detroit and Chicago.
Between 1982 and 1997, developed land in the Great Lakes region (8 states) increased by 5 million acres, a 27 percent increase. In 2003, the population density of the combined coastal counties in the Great Lakes region was 238 persons per square mile, up from 2226 in 1980, and expected to climb to 244 in 2008.
From 2003 to 2008, the Great Lakes coastal population as a whole is expected to increase by approximately 650,000 people. While the largest overall population increases are expected to occur in southern Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio, coastal counties showing the largest increases in percent population are located primarily in northern Michigan. (Population Trends Along the Coastal United States: 1980-2008. U.S. Department of Commerce National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Ocean Service, 2005.)
Coastal management can help communities to guide development so that people can live, work and recreate on or near the coast while protecting the unique coastal resources that attract people in the first place.. Incorporating smart growth principles into their land use and planning is one way. It is a particularly helpful framework for addressing issues of increased population density in more sustainable ways and without expanding the human footprint across the landscape.
Complementary activities include LEED for Neighborhood Development - the pilot rating system launched jointly by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU). LEED for Neighborhood Development integrates the principles of smart growth, new urbanism, and green building into the design and development of communities, moving beyond the single green building approach.
Several Great Lakes communities have had projects accepted into the LEED ND pilot program, including neighborhood re-developments in Chicago, IL, proposed industrial area converted to residential use at Founders Landing in Marquette, MI and the Flats East development along the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, OH, to name but a few. LEED certification provides independent, third-party verification that a development's location and design meet accepted high standards for environmentally responsible and sustainable development.
Coastal communities can contact their state coastal programs for more information on how to plan for and implementing a more sustainable approach to coastal community development.
The Great Lakes ecosystem's sand dunes, coastal marshes, rocky shorelines, lakeplain prairies, savannas, forests, fens, wetlands and other landscapes contain features that are either unique to or best represented within the Great Lakes Basin. Protecting and restoring these habitats is one of the key objectives of the Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA). The CZMA directs state coastal programs to "preserve, protect, develop, and where possible, to restore or enhance, the resources of the nation's coastal zone for this and succeeding generations."
Great Lakes sand dunes are one of the largest systems of freshwater sand dunes in the world, ranging from high, forested dunes and linear dune ridges commonly backing sand beaches, to active dune fields covering thousands of acres. Native dune species include the dune thistle (Cirsium pitcheri), Houghton's goldenrod (Solidago houghtonii) and the Lake Huron locust (Trimerotropis huroniana).
The Great Lakes basin has four main types of wetlands. Marshes are usually associated with ponds, lakes or streams. Typical plants include rushes, reeds, cattails and lily pads. The extensive freshwater marshes of the Great Lakes coasts are unique and range from small wetlands nestled in scattered bays to extensive shoreline wetlands such as those of southwestern Lake Erie, freshwater estuaries such as the Kakagon Sloughs of northern Wisconsin and the enormous freshwater delta marshes of the St. Clair River.
Swamps are wooded wetlands characterized by conifers, hardwoods or shrubby vegetation. Bogs are areas with minimal water flow, highly acidic peaty soils and carpets of mosses, especially Sphagnum. Vegetation such as black spruce, blueberries, cranberries, orchids and insect-eating plants are typical. Fens are similar to bogs but with less acidic soil, due to more ground and surface water flowing through. Sedges and low shrubs prevail, with some orchids and insect-eating plants.
Wetlands provide habitats for many kinds of plants and animals, some of which are found nowhere else. Rare species making their home in the Great Lakes region include the world's last known population of the white catspaw mussel, the copper redhorse fish and the Kirtland's warbler. Populations of birds, such as the black tern, American coot, and marsh wren, are declining, apparently due to loss of the healthy wetlands that they need. Some species of frogs and toads are also in decline. In parts of the Great Lakes, snapping turtles are contaminated with chemicals, which negatively affect the reproduction of this species. For ducks, geese and other migratory birds, wetlands are the most important part of the migratory cycle, providing food, resting places and seasonal habitats. Wetlands also play an essential role in sustaining a productive fishery, with many species of Great Lakes fish depending on coastal wetlands for successful reproduction.
With support from their CZMA funding, many state coastal management programs have developed and implemented coastal habitat restoration and protection projects. In Indiana, state CZMA funds totaling $425,000 aided in the restoration project at Dunes Creek within Indiana Dunes State Park. One goal of the project was reducing E. coli impact to Lake Michigan. E. coli levels were greatly reduced by returning Dunes Creek to a natural stream and wetlands area, which also benefited local trout and salmon. The Dunes Creek Daylighting project removed approximately 95,000 square feet of concrete pavement, 500 feet of culvert pipe, and restored that section to a stream and wetland.
In Minnesota, CZMA funds assisted in a property acquisition within Tettegouche State Park . The 7-acre acquisition will help in the effort to eventually join the main portion of Tettegouche State Park to Palisade Head and protect the shoreline by preserving the famous views from Palisade Head, Shovel Point and the mouth of the Baptism River. Tucked into a broad, cove-like setting along the coastline with about 425 feet along Lake Superior, the site will also provide an exceptional beach access for park day users.