A cement viewing area, once atop a nearby dune, sits in ice off the shore at the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk on Feb. 26, 2019. (Kyle Telechan/Post-Tribune)
A cement viewing area, once atop a nearby dune, sits in ice off the shore at the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk on Feb. 26, 2019. (Kyle Telechan/Post-Tribune)
Beyond a collapsed seating area and a closed handicap accessible ramp to the beach, anyone who still doubts the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk are threatened by an eroding beach and encroaching Lake Michigan should take a look at Rodger Howell’s pictures.

Taken from 2013 through last month, the pictures document the rapidly shrinking dune that protects the pavilion at the park from the lake, and how the lake is taking over the park, wave by wave.

Howell, chair of the beach committee for Ogden Dunes, is one of the people behind a coalition of municipalities and agencies joining forces to lobby for state funds toward a feasibility plan with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and for placing sand from Port of Indiana dredging on the beaches of the Portage Lakefront, as required by state law.

“Erosion has continued and no meaningful solution has taken place,” Howell said, adding the dune protecting the pavilion is collapsing and has lost 15 feet in height. “Needless to say, this will never be fixed until the Army Corps plan is place. The erosion will continue.”

Officials have said the Army Corps can conduct a study to find a solution to beach erosion, an update of a 2010 study that discussed the problem but didn’t recommend solutions. Half of the funding can come from the federal government through a grant, but only with a local match. The study, if the funds can be secured, takes two full years to finalize.

The coalition, which also includes environmental advocacy groups, chambers of commerce, and economic development corporations, among others, from throughout the region, is asking for $1 million in state funds to be placed in the Indiana Beach Nourishment Fund in the fiscal year 2020-2021 budget. The money, officials said, would complete the local match for the study and support short-term beach nourishment.

Ogden Dunes and Portage already have committed to helping fund the match.

“We’re not just asking for a handout,” Howell said.

The Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk, part of the Indiana Dunes National Park, opened in 2008 as a partnership between the National Park Service and the city of Portage. The location, Howell said, is the most-visited of the sites within the national park, and represents a $20 million taxpayer investment.

The seating area collapsed last winter, and a ramp to the beach that’s compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act also has been closed because of the erosion.

“The buildings, the parking lot, there’s a lot in jeopardy,” Howell said.

A lot more than sand is being lost at the park, said Colin Deverell, Midwest program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.

“The walkways and observation deck have fallen into the lake and we are only one or two severe storms away from the dunes being breached,” he said in an email, adding erosion threatens not only the beaches and man-made structures around them, but also fragile natural resources and the local economy.

“We have endangered plants and our namesake dunes that are at risk. And if the beaches and dunes are gone, or severely depleted, fewer visitors will be spending less money at surrounding businesses,” he said. 

The national park’s upgrade in status from a lakeshore last month, making it the nation’s 61st in the U.S. and the first in Indiana, could help push the issue, said Paul Labovitz, the park’s superintendent.

“I think that’s exactly one of the intangible ways the name change could make things happen here,” he said, adding the flip side is state legislators might mistakenly think the park is now entitled to additional federal funding, “and there’s no indication that’s happening.”

He expects fellow coalition representatives from Indiana Dunes Tourism and the National Parks Conservation Association will amend their talking points to note the change.

“It’s frustrating to see how a long list of stakeholders,” Labovitz said, noting the park service and the Army Corps, among others, “can’t muster up $1 million to do something everyone agrees is at a critical stage.”

For now, Labovitz said, park officials are waiting for winter to wane so they can assess the condition of the ADA ramp and figure out a solution to get people down to the beach this summer.

“I’m not sure what it is. It’s a dynamic situation,” he said.

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