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Michigan communities are addressing coastal hazards with resilience projects

The Alpena Light stands on the Alpena Harbor between Lake Huron and the Thunder Bay River.
Corey Seeman
The Alpena Light stands on the Alpena Harbor between Lake Huron and the Thunder Bay River.

When people hear “coastline,” they often think of Massachusetts or California – but Michigan is also considered a coastal state, with the longest freshwater coastline in the country. Teresa Homsi reports on how communities are protecting their shorelines...

The concept is of a rain garden is simple: plant native grasses and perennial flowers in an area where rainwater likes to pool.

But the benefits are immeasurable. Rain gardens help collect and filter stormwater, reduce pollution and drainage issues, and as a bonus, beautify landscapes and support pollinators.

It’s why communities are considering similar “nature-based” projects along their shorelines.

“Changing water levels, seasonal storms, flooding, and erosion - so this green stormwater infrastructure project is really trying to address coastal resilience to those challenges,” said Amy Nowakowski, a coastal project manager with Huron Pines.

Nowakowski is working with the City of Alpena to implement infrastructure projects to address water quality issues and protect Lake Huron.

“We worked to identify some locations that would be good sites for stormwater management..." Nowakowski said. "That's what put us on this trajectory of selecting several different locations in the city to develop conceptual designs for green infrastructure.”

Potential projects include planter boxes, tree box filters, native plant restoration on the city’s shoreline, and of course, a rain garden. The city and Huron Pines hosted forums for the community to rank their top projects – two of which will be implemented.

“I think it also builds a sense of place where people that live in the community have a voice in design options for implementing future projects that have nature-based solutions, and they feel more connected to it,” Nowakowski said.

Adam Arend is a community coordinator with Michigan’s Coastal Management Program. The program offers technical assistance and helps fund research on coastal hazards, masterplan updates and changes to zoning ordinances, and community projects - like the one in Alpena.

“You want to make sure your community is in a place to adapt and recover and respond to that bad storm, that record high water levels,” Arend said.

Arend said there’s no one-size-fits-all solution that can address the myriad of coastal issues experienced across the state.

For example, due to rising lake levels and erosion, some communities have implemented “setback” rules in their zoning ordinances, which can block new development close to the shoreline.

“When I think of resilience in the community, it’s the community recognizing the incredible resource they have that is their coastline and putting their heads together figuring out what particular hazards they're community’s dealing with,” Arend said.

Arend said climate change has only increased the need for resilience in coastal zones, as lake levels are projected to rise and extreme flooding events are increasing.

“There's about 387 coastal communities, municipalities in the state of Michigan..." Arend said. "Any community could potentially benefit from an interaction with us, whether that's technical assistance or a grant funding opportunity.”

In Alpena, the green infrastructure project received nearly $59,000 in grant funding from the state’s coastal management program this past year, with an additional match grant from within the community.

Nowakowski said the proposed infrastructure still needs to be reviewed and approved, but she’s excited to see projects go from “conceptual design” to a physical space.

“We all can play a part; I truly believe that we can all make a difference," Nowakowski said. "If we don’t try, who’s going to? So, let’s try to - not just improve natural resources - but to improve where we live.”

Nowakowski said some people may not think much of the difference a rain garden can make, but she said for Alpena, it’s just one of many steps to address real coastal issues.

To learn more about the green infrastructure planning in Alpena, visit the Huron Pines StoryMap on the potential projects. For more information on the state's coastal management program, visit the website here.

Teresa Homsi is an environmental reporter and Report for America Corps Member based in northern Michigan for WCMU. She covers rural environmental issues, focused on contamination, conservation, and climate change.
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