State of the Beach/State Reports/WI/Erosion Response

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Wisconsin Ratings
Indicator Type Information Status
Beach Access88
Water Quality74
Beach Erosion6-
Erosion Response-5
Beach Fill2-
Shoreline Structures6 3
Beach Ecology3-
Surfing Areas55
Coastal Development{{{19}}}{{{20}}}
Sea Level Rise{{{21}}}{{{22}}}


Erosion response is a measure of how well a state's policies and procedures limit the extent of shoreline armoring, unsafe coastal development, and costly beach nourishment projects, and conduct preemptive planning for sea level rise. Evaluation of this indicator brings attention to the states that are taking proactive roles in natural beach preservation and hazard avoidance. Through the formulation (if not already in place), implementation, and strict adherence of the specific criteria within the indicator, states can overcome two fundamental obstacles to alternative erosion response practices outlined by the Oceans Studies Board (2007):

  1. A lack of knowledge and experience among decision-makers regarding alternative options for shoreline erosion response, the relative level of erosion mitigation afforded by the alternative approaches and their expected life time, and the nature of the associated impacts and benefits.
  2. The current legal and regulatory framework itself, which discriminates against innovative solutions because of the complex and lengthy permitting process that almost always considers these options on a case-by-case basis.

For example, are statewide oceanfront construction setbacks used to site new development, and are these based on the latest erosion rates? When existing development is damaged during a storm, does a state prohibit reconstruction or provide incentives for relocation? Before permitting shoreline stabilization does a state require: that there is demonstrated need via geo-technical reports with content standards; that alternatives to armoring including managed retreat/relocation are fully explored; and that potential adverse impacts and cumulative effects are taken into account? Does the state conduct sea level rise vulnerability assessments and develop adaptation plans to mitigate impacts? If a state can answer 'yes' to most of these questions, then its rank is high. If the answers are mostly 'no' then its rank is low.

Also see the "Policies" discussion of the Shoreline Structures section of this report for more information on Wisconsin's erosion response.

Possible quantitative measures for this indicator include the number of new structures located within setback areas, number of damaged structures reconstructed in identified erosion zones, number of instances where alternatives to 'hard' shore protection were employed, the number of shoreline structures permitted under 'emergency' provisions, and the number of permits for shoreline structures reviewed, approved or denied. We have found that such information is rarely available.

Policies and Guidance

Coastal hazards have been a high priority since the WCMP’s inception, with coastal counties being vulnerable to flooding from high lake levels, storm surges, and episodic and chronic erosion. Nearly 80% of Wisconsin’s erodible shoreline suffers from bluff erosion and recession problems (WCMP §309 Assessment and Strategy, 2006). These natural hazards have caused millions of dollars of property damage, and yet there continues to be a high demand for development rights along Wisconsin’s Great Lakes shorelines.

Since 1994, WCMP has been updating methodologies and data to understand, visualize and develop mitigation measures to deal with shore erosion in the Great Lakes.

  • Current work focuses on developing and implementing shoreline and bluff erosion policies for Wisconsin's coasts. The WCMP seeks to accomplish this through expanding technical tools, providing education and outreach, and cooperating with coastal communities and other agencies.
  • WCMP coordinates with partners (Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, University of Wisconsin (UW) Sea Grant, Wisconsin Emergency Management, UW-Madison) through the Coastal Natural Hazards Work Group.
  • WCMP coordinates with other federal partners with interest in shore erosion such as Corps of Engineers, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and others.
  • For WCMP sponsored workshops contact

The 2006 Coastal Assessment and Stategy reports:

Wisconsin has no formal programs for monitoring or minimizing the impacts of shoreline recession or bluff erosion. Neither ch. NR 115 nor ch. NR 117, Wis. Adm. Code, are designed to address the management of natural hazards. Chapter NR 115 contains a 75-foot setback for environmental and scenic beauty protection, but not specifically for the purpose of relief from natural hazards. The basic authority for NR 117 would not allow the rule to be changed to protect "hazard areas" for the sake of reducing hazards--there is no such purpose in the law. NR 117 has little potential to address coastal hazards, unless the underlying statutory authority was to be changed. The purpose of ch. NR 116, Wis. Adm. Code, is to ensure that counties, cities and villages in Wisconsin protect development in their flood hazard areas from damage, and to reduce the cost to all levels of government for flood damages and disaster relief.

Setbacks for eroding shores are based on local erosion rates and the confidence level for predicting the erosion.

The DNR regulates construction and waterway alterations through an extensive permit program outlined in Chapters 30 and 31, Wis. Stats. Permit reviews for projects that take place in hazard areas consider the hazard and degree of risk in the project area, and whether the project will increase or decrease the hazard activity.

In response to these issues, WCMP has identified program objectives that include: directing future public and private development and redevelopment away from hazardous areas; preserving and restoring the protective functions of natural shoreline features; and preventing or minimizing threats to existing populations and property from coastal hazards.

The WCMP has thus been working to expand technical tools, provide education and outreach, and cooperate with coastal communities and other agencies, with the ultimate goal of developing and implementing shoreline and bluff erosion policies throughout the coastal area. The WCMP seeks to accomplish these objectives through coordination with the Coastal Hazards Work Group (which includes partners such as WDNR, Wisconsin Sea Grant, Wisconsin Emergency Management, and the University of Wisconsin) and by providing financial support through the grant program to partners addressing coastal hazards issues.

Coastal Program staff continue to coordinate with the Coastal Hazards Work Group (CHWG), which was created to develop strategies and tools that will help state and local governments address bluff erosion. The CHWG strives to support projects that are transferable across coastal counties. Program partners can also receive funding through the grants program for initiatives such as those to study the causes and effects of erosion or to implement measures to mitigate against property loss.

Examples of coastal hazards projects funded by the WCMP during this evaluation period include:

One example of the WCMP and CHWG’s collaborative efforts to address hazard issues is their work with Bayfield County. CHWG partners have been working with Bayfield County over the last several years to develop a location-specific and scientifically defensible setback requirement. The Bayfield coastal area is subject to coastal erosion, particularly in areas where the substrate is red clay soil. Previously Bayfield County required a minimum setback of 75 feet. New research has proven that, in some areas, this distance is not sufficient and a greater setback is required. Therefore, new criteria are being established that include allowance for erosion. These distances vary from one location to another as soil type, recession rates, and other conditions vary. The Bayfield County Coastal Setback Calculator can help property owners determine an adequate setback for the proposed building based on the conditions in your location. Permitting is based on this calculated setback and depends on the specific characteristics of their parcel. In some cases, property owners who use approved stabilization measures may reduce their required setback. Also see What is a Safe Setback?.

The WCMP-funded report "Managing Coastal Hazards in Wisconsin’s Changing Climate" documented setback approaches and recession/stability models. It included an annotated bibliography of coastal studies conducted in Wisconsin that are relevant to the setback issue.

Studies and reports relevant to Wisconsin’s Coastal Hazards include:

The Lake Superior Coastal Mapping Portal has been funded by the NOAA Coastal Services Center (and earlier in development, the WCMP). This project was initiated because land information managers identified a need for a “dynamic and distributed,” easy-to-use, geographic information system (GIS) to support coastal management. “Dynamic and distributed” meaning that data custodians (local, regional, state, federal, academic, or non-profit entities) maintain and provide access to the most current spatial data, allowing remote users to access and integrate data in real-time from multiple sources. Partners now include the City of Superior, Douglas County, Bayfield County, Ashland County, Iron County, and the Northwest Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission. Some CHWG members have highlighted the need for a GIS-based coastal hazards atlas like this for the entire Wisconsin coastline, which could be used to identify data gaps in addressing issues like identifying high water mark and changing ordinances. One of the challenges noted to developing such an atlas, however, is the initial organization of the data – identifying what is available where, and the metadata.

The WCMP (and CHWG) have supported the study of bluff erosion processes, the development of methodologies to estimate erosion and determine setbacks, and ongoing education and outreach. The Coastal Program has also worked with a number of coastal counties (e.g. Bayfield, Ozaukee, Racine) to improve current regulatory mechanisms by developing, strengthening, and/or adopting new shoreline zoning regulations and setback ordinances.

Information on the DNR's Shoreland Management program can be found here.

The state has a mandatory floodplain zoning program that must be administered by cities, counties and villages. See § 87.30 Wis. Stats. and NR 116, Wis. Admin. Code.

Section 309 Programmatic Objectives are:

  1. Direct future public and private development and redevelopment away from hazardous areas, including the high hazard areas delineated as FEMA V-zones and areas vulnerable to inundation from sea and Great Lakes level rise.
  2. Preserve and restore the protective functions of natural shoreline features such as beaches, dunes and wetlands.
  3. Prevent or minimize threats to existing populations and property from both episodic and chronic coastal hazards.

The 2006 Assessment notes that:

"...the third goal, to develop a statewide policy and regulatory framework to deal with coastal erosion, was addressed through several projects and continues to be an on-going activity. The WCMP has worked with Ozaukee County, located on Lake Michigan, to adopt a model setback ordinance. The WCMP is also working with Bayfield County, on Lake Superior, to develop an improved setback ordinance. The University of Wisconsin-Madison Business School project provides a new approach to interpret coastal erosion information through risk analysis."

University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute has some great publications and videos that are useful for communities, engineers, and individual property owners. See the coastal hazards section of their website.

Sea Grant's Wisconsin Coastal GIS Applications Project is a resource guide for Great Lakes coastal hazards in Wisconsin. This resource guide seeks to consolidate information about natural hazards affecting the Great Lakes coast in Wisconsin. It includes general information and links to other sites about techniques to manage or mitigate coastal hazards and strategies developed by government institutions to address coastal hazards in Wisconsin.

Protecting Coastal Investments: Examples of Regulations for Wisconsin’s Coastal Communities is a publication funded in part by NOAA’s National Sea Grant and the National Sea Grant Law Center. It addresses best practices for dealing with coastal erosion in Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin Association for Floodplain, Stormwater, and Coastal Management (WAFSCM) is the state chapter of the Association of State Floodplain Managers. Although its focus is wider than just erosion issues, they have a lot of information on coastal hazards associated with flooding and episodic erosion.

In June 2009 state environmental officials announced that shoreline property owners would have to limit the size of new driveways, decks and roofs under changes to Wisconsin's waterfront building regulations. The revisions represent the first major redraft of Wisconsin's shoreline building standards in more than 40 years and underscore how development around the state's lakes and rivers has shifted from family cottages to year-round homes and multi-unit complexes. The state's shoreline regulations have remained virtually untouched since the 1960s. Counties have created stricter standards on their own as development increased, resulting in a hodgepodge of ordinances. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has been considering updates to the state regulations since 1998. Highlights of the new package include the following:

  • Property owners would have to limit waterproof surfaces to 15 percent of the property's total area. Homeowners could increase that area to 30 percent if they reduce runoff or restore native plants. Larger surface areas would need a variance.
  • The height of buildings within the minimum 75-foot setback from the water would be capped at 35 feet "to protect and preserve the natural scenic beauty close to the shoreline."
  • It would wipe out rules that limit spending on changes to structures built before the original regulations went into effect. Currently spending is capped at 50 percent of the structures' value, but under the revisions homeowners could perform unlimited repairs and internal remodeling.
  • Homeowners who want to expand a pre-existing structure within the setback must take steps to improve water quality and wildlife habitat.

The Coastal Hazards Group, chaired by the Wisconsin Coastal Management program, has developed methodologies for determining construction setbacks. A model ordinance for Lake Michigan counties is included as part of these efforts.

The State of Wisconsin Hazard Mitigation Plan (2005) identified Wisconsin's major natural hazards, assesses the vulnerability to those hazards and outlines a strategy to reduce those vulnerabilities. The Plan focuses state agency resources to help protect the health, safety, property, environment and economy of Wisconsin from the effects of natural hazards. Wisconsin Emergency Management updated the Hazard Mitigation Plan in 2008. The Hazard Mitigation website of the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs, Division of Emergency Management has addition information and resources.

The Bay Lake Regional Planning Commission completed a coastal hazards planning guide and their website has links to several county hazard mitigation plans.

Racine County, WI has completed a hazards mitigation plan as a community response for hazards risk reduction. The process used for Racine County is expected to serve as a prototype for other coastal communities in Wisconsin interested in preparing mitigation plans to respond to natural hazards. The WCMP is working to support coastal communities in the inclusion of coastal hazards considerations in their mitigation plans.

Wisconsin has prepared an analysis of the flood risk to residential, governmental and commercial structures in the 15 counties along Lake Superior and Lake Michigan using FEMA's HAZUS-MH software. The highest potential losses to residential structures were in Milwaukee County ($635 million), Brown County ($146 million) and Racine County ($143 million). The corresponding potential losses in these three counties for commercial structures were $55 million, $36 million and $15 million. They also estimated the number of "high erosion risk" vulnerable structures and the corresponding monetary loss in each county. This is the number of structures within 1/4 mile of the Coastal Area Boundary. The residential structure loss estimates were highest in Milwaukee County ($310 million), Door County ($252 million) and Ozaukee County ($118 million). The three counties with the highest estimated erosion loss for commercial structures were Milwaukee ($3.8 million), Door ($2.1 million) and Bayfield ($0.8 million.)

Although not on the shores of the Great Lakes, Wisconsin has relocated many structures and even an entire town to higher ground.

Living on the Coast, from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, provides guidance about living and working on the edges of the dynamic Great Lakes. The principal message of this document is to "do everything possible to avoid placing buildings and other structures where flooding, storm waves and erosion are likely to damage them or shorten their useful lives. If it is not possible to avoid these hazards, use shore protection methods that work with nature or have minimal negative effects on the nearshore environment and on neighboring properties."

Coastal Barrier Resources Act

The federal Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA), passed in 1982, was designed to "minimize the loss of human life, wasteful expenditure of federal revenues, and the damage to fish, wildlife and other natural resources" by denying federal support for everything from sewer construction to flood insurance in undeveloped or little-developed coastal areas such as barrier islands. CBRA does not restrict development in these areas, but it indirectly discourages development by denying the use of federal funds for development projects or redevelopment after storm or flood damage. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administers this program, which identified 1.3 million acres of coastal land to be covered by the act. Unfortunately, pressure by property owners and developers in these areas has lead Congress to pass dozens of exemption bills which exclude certain areas from CBRA, thus thwarting the intent of the Act.

The Coastal Barrier Improvement Act (CBIA) was enacted on November 16, 1990. The CBIA resulted in reauthorization of the CBRA of 1982. The CBRA establishes the Coastal Barrier Resources System (CBRS) to protect areas such as undeveloped coastal barrier islands. There is a discussion of CBRA on NOAA's web site that concludes:

"Although the removal of federal funding assistance has discouraged development in some coastal barrier islands, development has continued in other areas despite designation as a unit of the CBRS. CBIA is not intended to prevent or regulate development in high-risk areas; rather the intent is to direct that federal dollars not be spent for development in these areas. Activities conducted in areas adjacent to CBRS units may adversely impact these sensitive areas; these activities are not regulated under CBIA. In addition, CBIA does not restrict the use of private, local, or state funding within CBRS units. Some coastal states have initiated legislation that limits state funding of certain projects."

A report released in March 2007 reviews the extent to which (1) development has occurred in CBRS units since their inclusion in the system and (2) federal financial assistance and permits have been provided to entities in CBRS units. GAO electronically mapped address data for structures within 91 randomly selected CBRS units and collected information on federal financial assistance and permits for eight federal agencies. GAO found multiple federal agencies have provided some financial assistance to property owners in CBRS units that is expressly prohibited by CBRA; some assistance allowed under CBRA; and hundreds of permits for federally regulated development activities within the unit. GAO recommended, among other things, the four agencies that provided prohibited loan guarantees or insurance policies to CBRS units first verify and then cancel those that are in violation of CBRA.

On April 7, 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released to the public its Report to Congress: John H. Chafee Coastal Barrier Resources System Digital Mapping Pilot Project. The report, which was directed by the Coastal Barrier Resources Reauthorization Act of 2000 (P.L. 106-514), highlights the benefits of updating Coastal Barrier Resources System (CBRS) maps with more accurate and precise digital maps to better protect people, coastal areas and natural resources. A 2016 report is now available.

FEMA has now developed a fact sheet on CBRA. The fact sheet outlines the responsibilities and restrictions that various programs within FEMA have under CBRA.

Climate Change Adaptation


As with most coastal states, certain areas along Wisconsin’s Lake Superior and Lake Michigan shorelines experience severe, chronic erosion. Yet in contrast to the open ocean, water levels in the Great Lakes are actually projected to decrease due to climate change. During the summer, higher temperatures are expected exacerbate lake evaporation, and during the winter, are expected to decrease lake ice. Coastal erosion will nevertheless remain an issue, as an increase in the severity and frequency of storms will continue to wear away bluffs and shorelines.

Wisconsin has not only recognized the impending issues associated with climate change, but has also adopted an increasingly pro-active response strategy. While the state lacks a single, comprehensive response plan, it has embarked on a number of climate change mitigation and adaptation initiatives in recent years. The State has taken the first steps in acknowledging climate change and its impacts, and has worked hard to increase public knowledge and awareness concerning these issues. Along these same lines, Wisconsin has strived to make coastal maps, erosion studies, and climate change information more accessible to the general public, policy makers, and coastal managers. The State has a long history of hazard mitigation, especially with regards to flooding, and thus already has much of the necessary framework to adapt to climate change at its fingertips.

Although Wisconsin’s current statewide 75-foot setbacks (only in unincorporated areas) are a step in the right direction, increasing coastal development and climate change impacts will necessitate additional development restrictions. And while the State has not formally adopted a managed retreat policy or erosion rate-based setbacks, both of these suggestions have been recommended by the State’s Coastal Community Working Group. In the near future it will be important for Wisconsin to consolidate its numerous erosion studies, hazard mitigation plans, adaptation strategies and decision making tools into one comprehensive and easily implementable guidance document, such as a State Adaptation Plan

Climate Change

In the past few years, Wisconsin has greatly increased its commitment to climate change mitigation and adaptation by actively pursuing measures to help the state identify and effectively respond to climate change impacts. The State fully acknowledges the issue of climate change, with the Department of Natural Resources even maintaining a government-sponsored climate change website. The website contains valuable links concerning the science behind climate change, the impacts expected in Wisconsin, and state-level mitigation and adaptation initiatives. Numerous educational and outreach materials are also available, including material geared towards elementary and middle school-aged kids.

Convened by Governor Doyle in 2007, Wisconsin’s Task Force on Global Warming approved an extensive set of policy recommendations to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases. This emissions reductions strategy was set out in three steps, culminating in a 75% reduction by 2050 from a 2005 baseline. The Task Force report, titled Wisconsin’s Strategy for Reducing Global Warming was released in 2008, and acts as the State’s Climate Action Plan. The Report outlined policy recommendations, which included significant actions such as:

  • Expanding the state's existing energy conservation and efficiency programs
  • Adopting California vehicle standards for greenhouse gases
  • Developing an emission cap and trade program
  • Establishing a formal process to track progress, evaluate existing policies and recommend adjustments

The Wisconsin Legislative Council has prepared useful summary documents related to the Task Force recommendations. These include:

Although Wisconsin’s Strategy for Reducing Global Warming briefly mentions the importance of researching and planning for climate change adaptation, the State currently has no State Adaptation Plan. Adaptation efforts are, however, being considered by the The Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts. See below for more information concerning the WICCI’s adaptation activities.

Reflecting the recommendations contained in the Governor's Task Force on Global Warming, The Clean Energy Jobs Act (AB 649/SB 450) was introduced January 7, 2010, although it has not been brought up for a vote in either the Assembly or the Senate. Despite this lack of legislative endorsement, Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources, the Wisconsin Public Service Commission, and other state agencies supported the drafting effort. The proposed bill, nevertheless, represents Wisconsin’s increasing effort to address climate change mitigation. If adopted, the bill would have:

  • Increased the state's renewable energy portfolio standard to 25% by 2025 and expanded the list of eligible renewable energy resources under the standards to include solar hot water systems, solar light fixtures, biomass heating systems, and renewable natural gas (from dairy sources)
  • Established mandatory and voluntary building codes to help meet energy conservation goals
  • Set statewide goals for GHG emission reductions
  • Set goals specifically for state agencies that address GHG emission reductions, energy conservation, and energy derived from renewable sources
  • Enabled the state to reduce emissions from a variety of transportation related sources.

Links to the text of the associated companion bills (Assembly Bill 649 and Senate Bill 450) and related documents prepared by the Legislative Council can be found on the Legislative Council website.

A "Climate Change Seminar" was presented to the state Natural Resources Board at its June 2010 meeting.

Between 2007-2008, the Wisconsin Sea Grant sponsored a series of climate change presentations focusing on the Great Lakes and inland water-related topics.

Additional climate change resources can be found here:


As with climate change mitigation, Wisconsin has been actively pursuing climate change adaptation studies and strategies in recent years. Furthermore, many of State’s existing statutes and coastal development tools can be readily applied to climate change adaptation measures, including the State’s long history of coastal erosion studies and data collection, as well as its comprehensive hazard mitigation strategy. Overall, the State recognizes climate change as a serious threat to future coastal communities and has acknowledged the importance of adaptation planning.

Formed in 2007, The Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI) is responsible for identifying and implementing adaptation Strategies. The goal of WICCI is to assess and anticipate climate change impacts on Wisconsin's natural resources, ecosystems, regions and industries, and develop and recommend adaptation strategies that can be implemented by various state and local stakeholders.

In reference to climate change adaptation, the WICCI states:

Adaptation will be the key to reducing the negative impacts of climate change and capitalizing on opportunities that develop. And adaptation will be critical in coming years. Even as we work to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases that are driving climate change, momentum already in the climate system guarantees that we will see significant warming, changes in precipitation patterns and snow cover, and increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.

The WICCI has adopted an extremely pro-active approach to climate change adaptation, striving to “[anticipate] challenges and [prepare] for them ahead of time”, and further noting that “effective planning and preparation could help save wildlife, property, money and even lives”.

The WICCI includes an Adaptation Working Group whose goal is to explore the aspects of adaptation and help support other elements of WICCI by providing a suggested general framework on climate change adaptation. The framework briefly addresses the meaning of adaptation; types and forms of adaptation; and essential questions to consider in assessing climate change adaptation issues and strategies.

The WICCI website also provides links explaining how Wisconsin’s climate is changing, the potential impacts of climate change, and the state’s possible adaptation strategies. See What Are Wisconsin's Possible Adaptation Strategies? , as well as Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts video (VIDEO Length 47:48).

In early 2011 WICCI released its first comprehensive report, Wisconsin's Changing Climate: Impacts and Adaptation. The report will serve as a resource for business executives, government, natural resource managers, public health officials and other decision makers as they take strategic steps to preserve jobs, invest resources wisely, build resiliency and protect both the built and natural environment in the face of a changing climate.

While recent climate change adaptation initiatives are important, Wisconsin’s current coastal management strategy, which includes setbacks and encourages building away from the shore, could prove most effective in responding to lake level changes. Currently the State does maintain a statewide setback of 75 feet from the Ordinary High Water Mark (OHWM) for all unincorporated lands along the State's Great Lakes shorelines. There are minimum required setbacks for homes and other buildings, as well as other structures including septic systems. For homes and buildings, the setbacks may incorporate a recession-based setback that takes into account bluff erosion after “n” number of years, and/or a stable slope-based setback. However, these setbacks are voluntarily included and at some locations, little or no recession rate data may be available.

Despite these important setback considerations and recognition of the importance of building away from active shorelines, Wisconsin’s 2006 Coastal Assessment and Strategy reported that the State still has no formal programs for monitoring or minimizing the impacts of shoreline recession or bluff erosion. Neither ch. NR 115 nor ch. NR 117, Wis. Adm. Code, are designed to address the management of natural hazards. Furthermore, while Chapter NR 115 contains a 75-foot setback for environmental and scenic beauty protection, this setback is not specifically designed for the purpose of relief from natural hazards. There are statewide mandated setbacks for eroding shores, which are based on local erosion rates and the confidence level for predicting the erosion.

In June 2009 Wisconsin’s waterfront building regulations underwent revision, representing the first major redraft of the State’s shoreline building standards in more than 40 years. As development has increased, many counties have independently created stricter standards, resulting in a hodgepodge of ordinances. The new regulations stipulate height building requirements, caps on repairing damaged structures, and limits on waterproof surfaces.

Recognizing the limitations of Wisconsin’s current management strategies to adapt to climate change, Wisconsin’s Coastal Communities Working Group has suggested coastal adaptation strategies that consider managed retreat and stricter setback requirements. The Group also provides additional Adaptation Strategies that can be utilized by coastal communities to better respond to coastal issues, including climate change:

  • Implement development setbacks based on defensible scientific data.
  • Relocate structures that are threatened by flooding or erosion.
  • Education for developers, bankers, and insurance agents.
  • Ongoing comprehensive planning and improved implementation of existing plans.
  • Use best management practices for site design to control stormwater runoff.
  • Develop plans for bluff stability enhancement, e.g. slow erosion by planting vegetation on bluffs.
  • Improve or restore natural shore protection features (beaches, dunes, nearshore shoals, and islands)
  • Design port and harbor infrastructure that can accommodate increased variability in lake levels, e.g. harbor slips that float.
  • Study the impact of climate change on tourism economics.

The Working Group aims to provide coastal communities with interpretive tools to synthesize dispersed data and translate the predictions of regional climate change models and lake level forecasts into a user-friendly format. These tools are expected to help decision-makers recognize the connections between climate model results and the day-to-day decisions they must make. The Group includes climate change influenced coastal flooding and coastal erosion as potential risks to shoreline communities, and further notes that the migration of the OHWM High towards the lake during extended periods of low levels may encourage development in hazardous areas, leaving many coastal communities in unknowingly vulnerable positions.

The Working Group also identified the following Data Needs, and importantly included the need for advanced LiDAR data and erosion rate studies:

  • Updated long-term projections of potential lake levels based on downscaling of general circulation models for the Great Lakes region.
  • Detailed nearshore bathymetry for multiple time periods to study lakebed downcutting.
  • Current, high resolution LiDAR data to construct integrated topographic/bathymetric models to visualize the impacts of variable water levels.
  • Current and historical orthophotography to calculate rates of bluff and shore erosion.
  • Parcels, tax assessment data, and planimetric mapping to assess buildings and infrastructure at risk to coastal hazards.
  • Higher density and frequency of coastal observations (buoys and other sensors measuring wind, waves, water levels, etc.).
  • Coastal demographics.
  • Extent of beaches and coastal wetlands.
  • Inventory of shore protection structures.

Contact Gene Clark, David Hart, or Phil Moy at the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute if you have any comments or concerns regarding how our changing climate will impact Wisconsin's Great Lakes coastal communities.

In October 2009, the WCMP, along with the Department of Administration, released Building a Great Lakes Spatial Decision Support Toolbox to Address Comprehensive Plan Implementation and Coastal Hazards Resilience. Focused on strengthening the State’s ability to effectively respond to coastal hazards, the document aims to expand the State’s use of geospatial technologies when planning and considering coastal development. By increasing access to this data, managers hope to increase knowledge and proficiency in assessing coastal hazards and applying hazards information during planning and implementation processes. When considering coastal hazards, the document interestingly observes that:

“while the trend towards high lake levels has reversed, the current low levels pose a risk because they give a false sense of security for construction and development near the shore… furthermore, erosion processes continue even when the levels are low, especially through surface runoff on bluff tops and faces and through lakebed erosion”

Fortunately, the document reports that nearly half (42%) of Wisconsin’s coastal communities have adopted comprehensive development plans consistent with the State’s planning law, and are now working towards implementing these recommendations. The report additionally notes that although Wisconsin has been actively applying geospatial technologies to coastal issues since 1994, the State currently lacks a consolidated Web portal for maps, data, and decision-support for the Great Lakes. To address this problem the Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute is funding a two-year research project to build a Wisconsin Coastal Atlas. Beginning in February 2010, the Atlas will be modeled on the successful Oregon Coastal Atlas, and thus include coastal maps, educational materials, and tools to help coastal communities understand and respond to coastal issues. Eventually the Atlas will be expanded in order to promote sustainable coastal development and healthy coastal ecosystems. The Research Agenda of the Wisconsin Coastal Atlas (2009) is a PowerPoint presentation providing an overview and background of the Atlas initiative.

One especially important spatial tool being developed is the Climate Change Lake Level Visualization tool. Once completed, the tool will provide visualization of shoreline and water level changes based on new climate and lake level scenarios for the harbors of Toledo, Ohio; Duluth, Minnesota; and Port Washington, Wisconsin. Expected to be finished in 2011, the tool is being completed as part of a Great Lakes regional project funded by the NOAA Climate Program office. An existing spatial decision support tool is:

  • The Visualizing Coastal Erosion on the Great Lakes website integrates animation, aerial photography, pictures, charts, and text to help the public better understand: (1) the natural process of coastal erosion; (2) how local land development decisions impact coastal erosion; and (3) the case for scientifically-based coastal development setbacks.

The Wisconsin Coastal Program’s initiatives to address Lake Superior bluff retreat were highlighted by NOAA’s Coastal Zone website as an exceptional case study of responding to coastal hazards. The Wisconsin Coastal Management Program partnered with the University of Wisconsin to conduct a bluff erosion study along its Lake Superior shore. Using historical aerial photographs, the study analyzed bluff erosion to determine both the volume of sediment lost due to erosion, as well as the rate of shoreline retreat. In response to this study, Bayfield County implemented a minimum 75 foot construction setback requirement along its lakefront shorelines.

The Wisconsin Coastal Management Program also developed the educational DVD titled Wisconsin Shores: Coastal Erosion in the Great Lakes. The DVD aims to educate current and future shorefront homeowners about the risks of owning property along Lake Superior. Combining a case study of several homes damaged and/or destroyed by a 2002 lakefront landslide, the DVD both illustrates the risks associated with coastal erosion and emphasizes the importance of shoreline planning.

The document Wisconsin Coastal Management Program: A Strategic Vision for the Great Lakes (2007) incorporates a number of issues and policies that address changing lake levels. The document recognizes the severe shoreline erosion issues plaguing certain areas along the Great Lakes, noting:

“Shore erosion has been a primary concern of many shoreline residents and governmental bodies owning property on the immediate shoreline, particularly during periods of high lake levels. There are also localized areas subject to serious flooding. Fluctuating lake levels remains a key concern of many Wisconsin coastal residents. While control of lake levels is beyond the reach of any state program, increased erosion during the period of high water is one of Wisconsin’s most visible coastal problems.”

The Wisconsin Coastal Management Program (WCMP) has recently updated its policies to ensure that they reflect existing state regulations.

Additional WCP adaptation actions include:

  • WCMP’s grant program that funds low-cost construction projects gives preference to those projects “that are part of an adopted waterfront or public access development plan that incorporates planning for lake-level changes.”
  • WCMP does encourage development and redevelopment away from hazardous areas. WCMP continues to work with coastal communities and other agencies in hopes of eventually implementing shoreline and bluff erosion policies throughout the coastal area.
  • The WCP has also funded multiple planning projects for coastal communities, with some of the resulting plans addressing lake levels within natural hazards or natural resource elements. These projects can be directly related to adapting to changing lake levels and and include:
    • A Guide to Hazard Mitigation Planning for Coastal Communities in Wisconsin (June 2007) discusses coastal hazards as they relate to local hazard mitigation plans formed under the Disaster Mitigation Act. Fluctuating lake levels are discussed as a planning element that communities should consider.
    • Climate Change in the Great Lakes Region seminar was held between March and September 2007, with eight experts speaking at seven sites around Wisconsin to discuss what is known, what is predicted and what can be done to adapt to a changing climate. An 80-page summary report and a DVD of the entire seminar series are now available from the UW Aquatic Science Center’s online Publications Store. More information about the Seminar can be found here.

Individual coastal communities have also taken independent initiative to adapt to climate change and coastal issues. For example, Racine County has completed a hazards mitigation plan as a community response for hazards risk reduction. The process used for Racine County is expected to serve as a prototype for other coastal communities in Wisconsin interested in preparing mitigation plans to respond to natural hazards. The WCMP is working to support coastal communities in the inclusion of coastal hazards considerations in their mitigation plans. The Bay Lake Regional Planning Commission also recently completed a The Bay Lake Regional Planning Commission completed a coastal hazards planning guide.

The Bayfield County Planning & Zoning Department has a website Lake Superior Shoreland Erosion and Safe Building Setbacks. The site has a section What is a Safe Setback?.

Although not necessarily located on the shores of the Great Lakes, severe flooding has forced Wisconsin to relocate many structures and even an entire town to higher ground. It is hoped that learning from these past experiences, the State will recognize the importance of building away from the shore, and thus gradually adopt a strategy of managed retreat.

Wisconsin has undertaken numerous bluff erosion and coastal hazard mitigation initiatives. The majority of these initiatives indirectly address lake-level rise as influenced by climate change. Below is a brief list of hazard mitigation actions, erosion studies, mapping initiatives, and publications that will prove important resources for Wisconsin’s coastal managers when considering climate change adaptation.

EcoAdapt announced in November 2012 the release of the synthesis report, The State of Climate Change Adaptation in the Great Lakes Region. The report is the result of a survey of freshwater resource managers, planners, and practitioners in the region who are tasked with developing strategies to prepare for and respond to a changing climate. This synthesis provides: a summary of key regional climate change impacts; examples of over 100 adaptation initiatives from the region, focusing on activities in the natural and built environments as they relate to freshwater resources; fifty-seven case studies, detailing how adaptation is taking shape; and an overview of challenges and opportunities for freshwater adaptation in the Great Lakes region.

NOAA's Climate Ready Great Lakes consists of three modules designed to help create a Great Lakes region that is “climate ready.” Toward this end, these modules provide stakeholders and decision makers with clear information about Great Lakes climate, as well as what we need to adapt to, why, and how. This project was sponsored by the Great Lakes Sea Grant Network and the NOAA Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Team. Each module consists of a presentation (available in PowerPoint format) and supplemental materials, including worksheets, handouts, and evaluation forms. All of the supplemental materials are available here, or through the links here. The modules may be presented in their entirety, or users may wish to select a subset of the Powerpoint slides and support materials from one or more modules to suit their particular needs.

General Reference Documents

EPA's Risk-Based Adaptation website (under the heading of Climate-Ready Estuaries) provides several resources and tools to help users identify, analyze, prioritize and reduce their climate change risks.

An informative publication is Ten Principles for Coastal Development (2007) by the Urban Land Institute.

The Coastal States Organization (CSO) has published two reports relating to climate change adaptation. The first is Coastal Community Resilience: An Evaluation of Resilience as a Potential Performance Measure of the Coastal Zone Management Act (July 2008). (No link to this could be found.) Developed by CSO staff and CSO’s Coastal Resilience Steering Committee, the document demonstrates the value of resilience to coastal management and offers concrete recommendations for enhancing resilience at the state and local level. The second document is The Role of Coastal Zone Management Programs in Adaptation to Climate Change (September 2008)(PDF, 732KB). The report includes detailed results of a 2008 adaptation survey designed to obtain up to date information on the status of adaptation planning, priority information needs, and the anticipated resource needs of the coastal states, commonwealths, and territories.

In April 2009, the Heinz Center and Ceres announced the release of their Resilient Coasts - A Blueprint for Action, to outline steps to reduce risks and losses in the face of growing threats. The Heinz Center and Ceres produced the blueprint with a coalition of leading insurers, public officials, risk experts, builders, and conservation groups. The blueprint is endorsed by many groups, including The Travelers Institute, The Nature Conservancy, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Wharton School, and the Mayor of Charleston, South Carolina. The blueprint includes policy changes and common sense actions that could reduce economic losses from future storms and rising sea levels by as much as half along U.S. coastlines. The blueprint outlines specific recommendations, including: enabling planning for climate impacts by providing the necessary science and decision-making tools; requiring risk-based land use planning; designing adaptable infrastructure and building code standards to meet future risk; strengthening ecosystems as part of a risk mitigation strategy; developing flexible adaptation plans; maintaining a viable private property and casualty insurance market; and integrating climate change impacts into due diligence for investment and lending. The coalition urges the Obama administration, Congress, local leaders and the private sector to see that blueprint actions are implemented through regulation, investment, education, and other means.

In January 2010 the National Association of Counties released Building Resilient Coastal Communities: Counties and the Digital Coast which highlights many of the Digital Coast resources that counties use to address coastal flooding, habitat conservation and land use. More resources, tools and data are available through NOAA's Digital Coast website.

More recently, NOAA Coastal Management has developed a Sea Level Rise and Coastal Flooding Impacts Viewer as part of its Digital Coast website. Being able to visualize potential impacts from sea level rise is a powerful teaching and planning tool, and the Sea Level Rise Viewer brings this capability to coastal communities. A slider bar is used to show how various levels of sea level rise will impact coastal communities. Completed areas include Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, Florida, and Georgia, with additional coastal counties to be added in the near future. Visuals and the accompanying data and information cover sea level rise inundation, uncertainty, flood frequency, marsh impacts, and socioeconomics.

StormSmart Coasts is a resource for coastal decision makers looking for the latest and best information on how to protect their communities from weather and climate hazards. StormSmart Legal is a new addition to the StormSmart Coasts Network that provides information about property rights, regulatory takings, and permissible government regulation in coastal areas.

In December 2012 NOAA's Climate Program Office released a report Global Sea Level Rise Scenarios for the United States National Climate Assessment. The report was produced in response to a request from the U.S. National Climate Assessment Development and Advisory Committee. It provides a synthesis of the scientific literature on global sea level rise, and a set of four scenarios of future global sea level rise. The report includes input from national experts in climate science, physical coastal processes, and coastal management.

NOAA's Coastal and Waterfront Smart Growth website is organized into 10 chapters describing different elements essential for communities interested in implementing coastal and waterfront smart growth. By clicking on the individual chapters, you can get a description of each Coastal and Waterfront Smart Growth Element, how this relates to the Coastal and Waterfront Issues, Tools and Techniques you can use in your community, and Case Studies of successes. Each chapter contains a navigation box allowing quick access to the information and the ability to download the content of each page. A 2012 report by NOAA and EPA on Achieving Hazard-Resilient Coastal & Waterfront Smart Growth presents ideas shared by smart growth and hazard mitigation experts related to building hazard-resilient coastal communities.

EPA has a website devoted to preparing for rising sea level and other consequences of changing climate. The premise of the Greenhouse Effect and Sea Level Rise website is that society should take measures to make our coastal development and ecosystems less vulnerable to a rise in sea level. The papers on this site demonstrate that numerous low-cost measures, if implemented, would make the United States less vulnerable to rising sea level. A more recent EPA website is Adapting to Climate Change, but was removed by the Trump administration.

Coastal Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerabilities (USGS-NOAA, January 2013) emphasizes the need for increased coordination and planning to ensure U.S. coastal communities are resilient against the effects of climate change. The report examines and describes climate change impacts on coastal ecosystems and human economies and communities, as well as the kinds of scientific data, planning tools and resources that coastal communities and resource managers need to help them adapt to these changes. Case studies are presented for Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

In December 2012 the Lincoln Institute released Coastal States’ Climate Adaptation Initiatives: Sea Level Rise and Municipal Engagement (Working Paper). This paper explores how states and municipalities interact to address sea level rise, providing an overview of the state of practice, some reasons for different levels of action, and some of the needs of municipalities. It includes recommendations for ways states can provide adaptation support to municipalities.

Coastal Risk Reduction and Resilience: Using the Full Array of Measures, (pdf, 1.2 MB) published in September 2013, discusses the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' capabilities to help reduce risks to coastal areas and improve resilience to coastal hazards through an integrated planning approach. Federal, state, local, non-governmental organization and private sector interests connected to our coastal communities possess a complementary set of authorities and capabilities for developing more integrated coastal systems. The effective implementation of an integrated approach to flood and coastal flood hazard mitigation relies on a collaborative, shared responsibility framework between Federal, state, and local agencies and the public.

The National Climate Assessment is an extensive report released through the U.S. Global Change Research Program and produced by a large team of experts with the guidance of the Federal Advisory Committee. The report is put out every few years, with the most recent one being the 2014 National Climate Assessment and the next report expected to be released in 2018-2019. It includes numerous studies on the impacts of climate change on different economic sectors and geographic regions in the U.S. An important and applicable portion of the report is the Response Strategies section, which lays out actionable ways that decision-makers ranging from the federal government to private-sector companies can take to mitigate and adapt to climate change.


Kate Angel
Federal Consistency Coordinator
Wisconsin Department of Administration
101 E Wilson St.
Madison, WI 53702
Phone: (608) 267-7988

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