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Duluth, St. Louis County work to slow shoreline erosion

With federal aid, engineers hope to prevent worse damage from occurring in the future.

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St. Louis County expected to spend about $1.5 million last year to deal with erosion issues along Scenic Highway 61 near the Greenwood Road.
Steve Kuchera / File 2020 / Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH — Local authorities are playing catch-up and desperately trying to anticipate Mother Nature's next move, as Lake Superior continues to munch away at the shoreline of Duluth and the North Shore.

The city and St. Louis County have received a $258,000 federal grant to assess the erosion damage that has occurred in recent years, prioritize areas that are of most crucial concern and propose fixes.

"We have experience now with public assistance funding from the state and the federal government to repair damage after it happens. So, this program and this project are unique in that, this is an effort to get ahead of that," said Mike LeBeau, project engineer for the city of Duluth.

"There's an acknowledgment by government agencies and more and more of us that it's way less expensive to get ahead of this and do the planning, the design and mitigation work before we have catastrophic failures of public infrastructure," he said.

LeBeau described the effort as "an awakening by everyone that it's time to get ahead of the cycle and understand what's going on and learn from past disasters and failures."

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In the first of three public meetings on the project, engineer Victor Magar said Wednesday night that researchers are taking a hard look at imagery from the past 80 years, as well as recent drone video of the 20-some miles of shoreland between Brighton Beach and Knife River to better understand the pace of erosion, especially as recent years have brought the area more storms of greater intensity and frequency.

The project, which involves numerous points along the Lakewalk to be completed over the span of several years, seeks to restore the shoreline and protect the trail from future damage in storms or erosion.

The goal of this assessment is to determine which sections of shore are in greatest need of immediate attention.

LeBeau likened the endeavor to emergency triage.

The project began in the fall of 2021 and is likely to take about two years to complete. The remediation plan that emerges likely will give rise to a request for millions of dollars in additional federal aid.

A half-mile of concrete retaining walls or stone revetment can cost around $5 million. So, LeBeau said a targeted approach is necessary.

Portions of Congdon Boulevard, aka Scenic Highway 60, and some of the overlook turnoffs already are gravely undermined, and LeBeau said another big storm could cause them to fail "any day."

"One of our other city staff members is from the engineering department, and he says he's expecting to get a call some night that a chunk of Congdon Boulevard has slid off into the lake. And he's prepared to ask: Which chunk?" Le Beau said.

Already, about $30 million has been invested to harden the 18 miles of shore in Duluth, protecting the Lakewalk in the process, since a series of storms including an Oct. 18, 2018 weather event described by some as an "inland hurricane."

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It's safe to predict that the pending fix up the shore from Duluth won't be cheap.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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