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Erosion has some Great Lakes residents on the run

Many who live close to the edge of the five Great Lakes are learning the hard way about the impact erosion can have on a piece of shore property. Some residents of Monroe County, Mich., actually have had their homes washed out by storms on the eastern edge of Lake Erie. Residents of Chicago's affluent North Shore suburbs, increasingly hard-hit by beach erosion along Lake Michigan, have invested thousands of dollars in man-made sea walls in an effort to get waves to break farther offshore.

Erosion on the Great Lakes remains a constant and perplexing problem. Unlike ocean swells, which often carry replenishing sand from shallow water to the shore, waves during storms on the lakes tend to be short and choppy. The net effect: continuous erosion.

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Although the rate varies widely according to water levels, storms, and wave action, the estimated two-thirds of the Great Lakes shoreline affected by erosion loses an average of two to three feet a year.

Researchers have long grappled with the question of how best to direct and slow the effect. They have studied every possibility, from hiking lake water levels to building a wide variety of shoreline protection devices. The results keep pointing to at least one conclusion: Man may travel to the moon, but he cannot stop or effectively control the natural process of erosion.

"There's been all kinds of work on devices, but nothing really works that well," says William Sonzogni of the Great Lakes Environmental Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Mich. "Basically, the cost is so prohibitive and the effect could be so damaging to the environment that the conclusion is that there's not much one can do."

Thus, the attention once focused on finding a structural answer now has shifted to warning would-be buyers of erosion-prone property that if they do not build far enough back from the shore there could be unhappy results.

Both US and Canadian agencies have developed pamphlets and audio-visual materials aimed at convincing property buyers of their prime responsibility for any decisions they make. Advice on where to look for the information needed is offered. Canadian authorities even offer buyers a free scientific estimate of just where the shore will be in 100 years in any given area. A new Canadian slide show called "Coping With the Great Lakes: Flooding and Erosion" was shown at a recent meeting here of the International Association for Great Lakes Research. It closes with the warning: "Make sure you know what you are getting into. It's up to you."

A new report of the Great Lakes Basin Commission, an agency set up by federal legislation in 1965 to coordinate planning for land and water resources in the five-lake region, recommends that border states require disclosure of erosion and flood-prone areas in property deeds so that buyers get fair warning of the risk ahead of time. The commission also urges a clearer spelling out of the rare conditions under which erosion claims may be paid under the 1968 National Flood Insurance Act.

Although many owners of shore property immediately look for federal help when erosion takes its toll, the damage must be the result of a storm and unusually high water levels to qualify for aid under the legislation.

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Some states and cities are giving serious thought to setback requirements. The US Army Corps of Engineers encourages the idea of requiring any new buildings to be built at least several hundred feet back from the shoreline.Wisconsin now requires most new construction to be at least 75 feet from the shore, and one county and township on Lake Superior have built in stricter requirements. New developments in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ontario must go up behind a specific setback line based on aerial photos of erosion.

Lakeside homeowners who learn about erosion only after the fact can take some steps to protect themselves, but none will prove a panacea, according to erosion experts. If property owners cannot move their buildings, for instance, they can try to plant vegetation, such as beach grass or trees, to add stability; or they can bring in sand fill to temporarily raise beach levels, or cut back the steep slope of a potentially eroding bluff to make it more gentle.

Those willing to put out some money may also try a variety of protective structures, but experts warn that the investment may not be worth the cost. One homeowner spent $18,000 for a sea wall that lasted only two years. And many find it increasingly difficult to get governmental permits to take action as the realization grows that whatever one property owner does also affects his neighbors. A groin built offshore from one property, for instance, may rob needed sand from another area. Indeed, some experts predict that the question of individual vs. joint action may well become a future focus of liability lawsuits.

Some property owners point to current regulation of water levels on outlets from Lake Superior and Lake Ontario (both modified slightly for navigational purposes) and say if water were put at lower levels in all Great Lakes their shore homes would be safer from erosion when storms hit. But regulating lake levels, like most other attempts at control, is expensive and its effectiveness questionable, according to most experts. An exhaustive study of the issue by the International Joint Commission recently ruled out further regulation as too costly.

"The biggest hurdle is educating people to realize that erosion is a natural process and that there is really only so much anybody can do to control or direct it," says Walter Pomeroy of the Great Lakes Basin Co mmission.

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