Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Parks Seeks Funding for South Shore Breakwater

$1.3 million needed for "immediate repair" to badly damaged breakwater.

By - May 28th, 2021 05:26 pm

Milwaukee County Courthouse. Photo by Sulfur at English Wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Milwaukee County Courthouse. Photo by Sulfur at English Wikipedia (GFDL) or (CC-BY-SA-3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Milwaukee County Parks is trying to find more than $1 million to fix half of the badly damaged breakwater just off the shoreline at South Shore Park.

The breakwater runs along the coast from Cupertino Park south past South Shore Park and Bay View Park.

The department is exploring ways to finance repairs to the northern half of the structure, because it protects infrastructure like the South Shore Yacht Club, boat launch and a section of the Oak leaf Trail that have received “significant investments” by the cash-strapped department, according to a parks report headed for the county board. Fixing the entire breakwater is estimated to cost approximately $2.8 million. But fixing just the northern end would cost an estimated $1.3 million.

In January, 2020, devastating winter storms caused damage to county assets along Lake Michigan. The value of the damage is estimated to be between $8 and $10 million. The breakwater just off the coast of Bay View, though it had already been deteriorating from waves and high water levels, was among the infrastructure damaged.

The storm was declared a federal disaster, and the department applied for funding through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to fix approximately $7 million worth of infrastructure. Among the assets were the breakwater and the bluffs in Bay View Park, which run parallel to the southern end of the breakwater. But neither projects received funding.

FEMA denied funding for the breakwater, and the agency doesn’t fund repairs to bluffs or parks unless there are constructed assets on it, so parks withdrew its application for the bluffs.

The breakwater is no longer providing sufficient protection for the shoreline. There are “numerous openings” and the large stones that are key to the structure holding forth against pounding waves have fallen into the navigation channel, according to parks.

The rocks that are left aren’t big enough. The department thinks it can reconfigure what’s there on the northern end of the structure to support larger stones being placed on top. The weight of the larger stones would hold everything in place.

The same thing could be done to the southern end. Or, it could be completely dismantled and the stone would be repurposed for a stone revetment protecting the bluffs in Bay View Park.

Parks has been looking for ways to fund the project so that some repairs can be made sooner rather than later. Seeking funding through the appeal to FEMA or through a potential federal infrastructure bill that hasn’t yet been passed will mean the breakwater goes through “multiple seasons of impacts to its already deteriorated condition.”

The department will outline several options for the County Board that could fund work on the breakwater this year. These funding options include tapping into the county’s contingency account or the debt service reserve. The latter is an account held for the purposes of paying down the county’s debt.

There’s also just over $1 million that the board approved as part of the 2021 budget for planning the repairs to the breakwater. In the report, parks suggested some of these funds could be moved to make “immediate repairs.”

The breakwater was last repaired in 2006. It’s just one of a number of coastal assets being degraded by historically high lake levels. An inventory of the county’s $2.9 billion in coastal assets found 13% were in poor condition and 22% were highly vulnerable.

Historically high lake levels have taken a toll on coastal infrastructure and natural assets, like bluffs. Much of the damage occurs during storms, which will potentially grow worse as climate change progresses, the department warned in December 2020.

Coastal assets also need to be maintained and repaired for the direct safety of county residents. Fluctuating lake levels have eroded McKinley Beach, creating dangerous swimming conditions.

The county board authorized $80,000 in emergency funding to study the situation at McKinley Beach, but eventually the work there will become yet another project in the long list of repairs and maintenance needed in the county parks system, which includes projects like the breakwater in Bay View.

Ian Everett, spokesperson for the parks department, recently told Urban Milwaukee, “This is a parks system where we don’t get to build anything new; we spend all our money fixing.”

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Categories: MKE County, Parks

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