Rita Alton has an unusual morning routine these days: Wake up. Get dressed. Go outside to see if her house is closer to tumbling down an 80-foot cliff into Lake Michigan.
When her father built the 1,000-square-foot, brick bungalow in the early 1950s near Manistee, Michigan, more than an acre of land lay between it and the drop-off overlooking the giant freshwater sea. But erosion has accelerated dramatically as the lake approaches its highest levels in recorded history, hurling powerful waves into the mostly clay bluff.
Now, the jagged clifftop is about eight feet from Alton’s back deck.
“It’s never been like this, never,” she said on a recent morning, peering down the snow-dusted hillside as bitter gusts churned surf along the shoreline below. “The destruction is just incredible.”
On New Year’s Eve, an unoccupied cottage near Muskegon, Michigan, plunged from an embankment to the water’s edge. Another down the coast was dismantled a month earlier to prevent the same fate.
High water is wreaking havoc across the Great Lakes, which are bursting at the seams less than a decade after bottoming out. The sharp turnabout is fueled by the region’s wettest period in more than a century that scientists say is likely connected to the warming climate. No relief is in sight, as forecasters expect the lakes to remain high well into 2020 and perhaps longer.
The toll is extensive: homes and businesses flooded; roads and sidewalks crumbled; beaches washed away; parks rendered unusable. Docks that boats previously couldn’t reach because the water was too shallow are now submerged.
At one point last year, ferry service was halted in the Lake Erie island community of Put-In-Bay after the vessels’ landing spot disappeared beneath the waves. On Mackinac Island in Lake Huron, portions of the only paved road washed away.
Homeowners and agencies are extending battered seawalls, constructing berms and piling stones and sandbags. Some are elevating houses or moving them farther inland. Even shanties in a historic Michigan fishing village dating to 1903 are being raised. The state’s environment department has issued more than 400 permits for such projects.
The situation is inspiring soul-searching over how to cope with a long-term challenge unique to this region. While communities along ocean coasts brace for rising seas, experts say the Great Lakes can now expect repeated, abrupt swings between extreme highs and lows.
“It wasn’t long ago they were worried about Lake Michigan drying up. Now it’s full,” said Rich Warner, emergency services director for Muskegon County. “All these ups and downs—I don’t know if that’s something you can truly plan for.”
Levels are always changing in the Great Lakes, which together hold about 90% of the surface fresh water in the U.S. They typically decline in fall and winter, then rise in spring and summer as melting snow and rainfall replenish them. Broader fluctuations take place over longer periods. Levels surged in the 1980s before dropping sharply in the 2000s.
But increasingly, the highs are higher and the lows lower—and the variations happen faster. Lakes Superior, Huron and Michigan had bigger jumps between 2013-14 than during any comparable period. It took just seven years to go from record slumps to all-time peaks.
Lakes Ontario and Erie last year reached their highest points since record keeping began in 1918. Superior surpassed several all-time monthly averages and did so again in January. Lakes Huron and Michigan did likewise last month, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Detroit.
Even Lake Ontario, where a hydropower dam provides more stability, has experienced record highs twice in the past three years.
“That’s not supposed to happen,” said Drew Gronewold, a University of Michigan hydrologist. “That lake is carefully regulated.”
Climate change is believed to influence water temperatures and precipitation, which wage a constant tug-of-war with lake levels. Warmer water boosts evaporation, which pushed levels downward about 20 years ago. But as the atmosphere warms, it sucks up more moisture from other regions and dumps it into the lakes, filling them back up.
“Those two forces are increasing in intensity at the same time,” suggesting the up-and-down shifts may become more extreme,” Gronewold said.
How long before the waters recede is anyone’s guess. The Army Corps predicts the lakes will exceed their long-term averages through June. Lakes Michigan and Huron already are 17 inches higher than a year ago.
Another ominous sign: Ice cover is light this winter. Shoreline ice provides a buffer against pounding waters. In its absence, Chicago’s Lake Michigan waterfront was battered by waves reaching 23 feet during a mid-January storm.
That means the potential for further damage will increase as spring snowmelt and rains arrive, said Ethan Theuerkauf, a Michigan State University geologist.
“This would include extensive beach, dune and bluff erosion, but also damage to coastal infrastructure and more lakefront homes falling in,” he said.
Members of Congress from the region are seeking federal funds for barrier construction, dredging and restoring shorelines. State lawmakers in Michigan are pushing to expand the criteria for declaring emergencies that could trigger government assistance for people struggling to protect their homes.
But local officials acknowledge a need for innovative approaches to the lakes’ increasing fickleness.
In South Haven, Michigan, consultants have developed a $16.3 million list of infrastructure projects, including installing structures to absorb and dispel energy from Lake Michigan waves.
The Lake Erie town of Luna Pier, Michigan, is considering spending millions to replace dikes built nearly a half-century ago—a steep price for a village of only 1,500 residents. A waterfront hotel on Mackinac Island has hired specialists from Finland to revise its drainage.
“The climate is doing some weird and crazy things and we need to be prepared with stronger and more flexible infrastructure instead of just covering cracks,” said Herasanna Richards, legislative associate with the Michigan Municipal League.
The recent surge also has rekindled longstanding debates over what government can do to control levels—particularly on Lake Ontario, where they’re partially regulated by outflows to the St. Lawrence River through a hydropower dam. A U.S.-Canadian commission oversees how much water leaves the lake, based on the needs of competing interests such as shoreline homeowners, commercial shippers and wetlands.
Meanwhile, some people living along Lake Huron and Lake Michigan are demanding that Canada stop releasing water from two hydro projects into Lake Superior, even though it has elevated levels only by a few inches since the 1940s.
“Every inch counts,” said Don Olendorf, a leader of a property owners’ group pushing for the change. His house is about 30 feet from the edge of an eroding Lake Michigan bluff.
Alton, whose house is precariously close to the Manistee-area cliff, said she can’t afford to move it. She has pleaded for help from local officials without success.
“At some point I’m going to have to leave,” she said, “because it’s going to go over.”
MILWAUKEE —The Wisconsin Republican Party has opened its first-ever office in the heart of downtown Milwaukee, one of the clearest signs yet of the party’s push to cut into Democrats’ advantage among minority voters and the latest indication of how hard-fought every vote will be in the battleground state.
The office will serve as the base for the party’s minority outreach coordinator and serve as a hub for Republican events, campaign organizing and efforts to connect with black and Hispanic people in Milwaukee, party leaders told The Associated Press.
“We want to be a part of the community,” Wisconsin Republican Party Chairman Andrew Hitt told the AP. “We want to make sure they know there is a choice.”
Both major parties have stressed the importance of reaching every possible voter in the swing state. President Donald Trump carried the state by fewer than 23,000 votes in the 2016 election, fueled by high turnout among Republicans in rural areas and a drop in Democratic voters in Milwaukee, which is home to more than 69% of Wisconsin’s black voters.
Republicans may not win in Milwaukee—Hillary Clinton got 77% of the city’s vote in 2016—but “we need to make the Democrats fight for those votes,” said Mark Jefferson, executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party.
In 2016, black turnout was down about 7 percentage points nationally compared with 2012, according to census estimates. In Wisconsin, the drop-off among black voters was steeper—20%, based on a study by the Center for American Progress, a liberal advocacy group.
Democrats have been making a concerted push to turn it around. It involves a lot of organizing on the ground to connect with voters who stayed home in 2016.
Angela Lang leads Black Leaders Organizing Communities, a group that formed after the 2016 election to better reach black voters in Milwaukee.
“We know that turnout was down. (Black) people felt that they weren’t engaged in a meaningful way,” Lang said. “So we’re trying to think of lessons learned and making sure that we’re engaging people. ... We need to start our conversations early and we can’t wait for a candidate or party leader.”
Lang said she’s glad the GOP is “finally realizing the importance of the black vote,” but she said the party will have a tough time convincing black voters to support it.
“It’s interesting that now they want to target black voters when a lot of Republican policies directly are in conflict with our community and actually supporting our community,” she said.
The political arm of Voces De La Frontera, which advocates for immigrant rights, is recruiting a network of 23,000 Latinos and multiracial youth to engage Hispanic voters leading up the presidential election—whether it’s friends, families, or acquaintances on social networks.
“Wisconsin was lost not because of a surge of voters for Trump, but it was lost because of lower turnout by blacks, Latinos and youth,” executive director Christine Neumann-Ortiz said.
Neuman-Ortiz said she doubts Republicans will succeed with minorities.
“The way they’ve up to now made inroads, or tried to make inroads, I think has really been a failed strategy because they offer nothing,” Neuman-Ortiz said. She said if Republicans want to gain minority votes, they should ”stop the aggressive attacks against immigrants through policies that separate families.”
BELOIT—Beloit City Council President Regina Dunkin is now the chair of the Wisconsin State Public Defender Board after selection last week by the organization.
Her appointment as chair marks the first time the state board has been led by an African American and a woman since its inception in 1972.
“I didn’t think it would happen,” Dunkin said. “I was the acting chair in 2019 and I wasn’t fearful of stepping up into that leadership role.”
Dunkin added that she recognizes the importance of her most recent appointment.
“It sends a message to our women and girls and children that we can achieve great things and I think it’s a good example for all people,” Dunkin said.
Dunkin has served on the board since 2005, and has been appointed by Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, Republican Gov. Scott Walker and in March of 2019, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers appointed Dunkin to serve her most recent term that lasts until May 2022.
She currently serves as community relations coordinator at Beloit Health System and was formerly the director of the Merrill Community Center in Beloit.
Regina’s background in Beloit and at the Merrill Community Center and now the Beloit Health System has made her a tremendous asset on the Public Defender Board,” said State Public Defender Kelli Thompson. “I know she will bring that background and experience to her leadership of the board.”
Dunkin said she felt uniquely positioned to impact change in Rock County and beyond while in her leadership position on the board, noting the front-end measures the board has focused on to prevent youth and minorities from being caught up in the criminal justice system.
“We need to be more proactive on that front end with an emphasis on education because if people can get educated they are less likely to be involved in unhealthy behaviors,” Dunkin said.
Wisconsin incarcerates people of color at far higher rates than Caucasians and at rates of disparity far above the national average, with African American men representing 43% of the total prison population, according to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.
“It makes me think about what issues our state is struggling with and those ways to find solutions to improve justice for everyone,” Dunkin said.
In 2019, the board focused on increasing the bar rate for state public defender cases for private attorneys from $40/hour to $70/hour. In 2020 and beyond, Dunkin said she hopes the board will focus on budget areas of need along with possible discussions regarding wrongful conviction cases.
In her leadership role, Dunkin said she’s able to promote her first love, Beloit, to the rest of the state.
“When I first started it was like a curse word, ‘Beloit’, she said. “Just the whole perspective on our city is important and the perception is better than it’s ever been.”
The board oversees the Office of the State Public Defender, which provides legal representation for indigent persons who are accused of crimes or are defendants in certain civil matters. The office determines financial eligibility based on an analysis of each applicant’s income, assets, family size and essential expenses. The board consists of nine members appointed to three-year terms by the governor with the advice and consent of the Senate. At least five of the nine must be members of the State Bar of Wisconsin.
Meetings will be held in April, June, September and November of this year. Dunkin said that she hoped to bring a state board meeting to Beloit either in 2020 or 2021.
To learn more about the board, visit wispd.org/.
When those with Rock County Jumpstart collected a directory of black entrepreneurs, they discovered there were 65 of them in Beloit alone.
It’s part of the reason organizers are forging ahead with the business incubator and accelerator known as Rock County Jumpstart. Located at Blackhawk Technical College, the new incubator offers workshops and classes on everything from business plans and marketing strategies to obtaining business loans. Organizers one day hope to move it to its own building.
Those with the business incubator are inviting the community to an event to learn more about it and how they can support it.
The event is designed to introduce Jumpstart to people as well as an opportunity for people to learn how to partner with Rock County Jumpstart as a mentor or coach, said the organization’s founder and Interim Executive Director Genia Stevens.
The Rock County Jumpstart launch event will be held from 5-7 p.m. on March 24 at the Beloit Public Library.
Featured guests will include Cornelius Turner, owner of Ribs, Reubens and More, and Jessica Quince, owner of JSweets.
Stevens said she launched the incubator after seeing positive results from similar ones in Madison where she runs her business, Belwah Media.
“I realized we don’t have programs like that in Beloit,” Stevens said.
Stevens’ plan is to get it up and running and then hire an executive director to run it as she will move to a board position.
Stevens got the final bit of inspiration to start the incubator at last year’s Black Women in Business Expo where she encountered many black business owners with businesses she didn’t know existed.
“Then knowing there are all these programs in Madison for black women business owners is what convinced me Rock County needs an incubator and accelerator program,” Stevens said.
After Jumpstart’s official launch this summer, organizers plan to start outreach in Janesville and other areas of Rock County. Following a needs assessment, Jumpstart will offer classes on topics entrepreneurs say they need.
Rock County Jumpstart lists as its mission providing the education, tools and resources black entrepreneurs need to start, grow and sustain a successful business in Rock County.
For more information people can visit rockcountyjumpstart.org.
Effective March 9, the Beloit Daily News will be delivered to print subscribers through the U.S. Postal Service.
For many, that will mean earlier delivery of the paper. Additionally, because of changing production schedules at the paper, editions will be available by 7 a.m. at area retail vending sites.
The mail plan is being implemented to provide enhanced reliable delivery times to print subscribers. All-access subscribers, of course, will continue to receive even faster online content.
To subscribe to your community newspaper contact subscriber services at 608-365-8811.