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DNR offers tools to deal with high water, bluff failures

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has an updated webpage with detailed information on tools landowners and communities along the Lake Michigan and Lake Superior shorelines can use to address the problems of rising water levels and bluff failures.

The Great Lakes erosion control webpage was initially launched in 2016 in response to safety concerns stemming from soil erosion and bluff failures. For more information, search the DNR website,, for keywords "Great Lakes erosion control." It has the latest information the public can turn to for details on temporary, emergency measures as well as the process for permanent structures.

Since 2016, the DNR, at the request of Gov. Scott Walker, has worked cooperatively with the Wisconsin Department of Administration and other state and local entities to support communities and property owners with expedited review of emergency stabilization measures to avert bluff failures.

Several factors contribute to bluff erosion including surface water runoff, groundwater, bluff material and slope. Placing heavy stable material such as large, natural rock at the bottom or "toe" of the bluff can help protect the area from wave erosion. Managing water at the top of a bluff through techniques such as directing downspouts to drain water away from the area also can play an important role in keeping the bluff stable.

"In urgent situations, the department is allowing for the temporary placement of materials at the bottom of the bluff under easy-to-follow conditions while the property owner seeks approval for a permanent solution," said DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp. "The DNR will do everything within its statutory authority to allow property owners to stabilize bluffs, prevent further erosion, and protect safety and property."

Emergency approval, while allowing landowners to take action now, requires landowners to plan, design and implement a permanent shoreline protection solution and receive a permit for placement through the state Chapter 30 permit process, said Martye Griffin, chief of DNR's Waterway and Wetland Protection Section. Property owners requesting emergency action can email Griffin at

Homeowners should use care when considering emergency work, according to Griffin.

"During high water events in previous years, some efforts to deploy broken concrete and other materials down the side of the bluff resulted in excessive weight on the sloping bluff face. Rather than protecting the toe of the slope, this worsened erosion problems," Griffin said.

Steve Galarneau, director of DNR's Office of the Great Waters, emphasized the Great Lakes coast is a complex, dynamic environment with varying physical characteristics.

"Water levels on Lake Michigan can vary greatly and are about four feet higher than the low level reported in January 2013," Galarneau said. "Lake levels are currently running about 16 inches above the long-term average of 578.8 feet. Lake Michigan is still more than two feet below the record high of 582.35 feet set in October of 1986."