State of the Beach/State Reports/WI/Shoreline Structures

From Beachapedia

Home Beach Indicators Methodology Findings Beach Manifesto State Reports Chapters Perspectives Model Programs Bad and Rad Conclusion

Wisconsin Ratings
Indicator Type Information Status
Beach Access88
Water Quality74
Beach Erosion6-
Erosion Response-5
Beach Fill2-
Shoreline Structures 6 3
Beach Ecology3-
Surfing Areas55
Coastal Development{{{19}}}{{{20}}}
Sea Level Rise{{{21}}}{{{22}}}


Wisconsin state law requires a coastal permit for shoreline structures along the shoreline. Wisconsin’s permitting system allows seawalls to be permitted for designated high energy sites.

The report, "State Coastal Program Effectiveness in Protecting Natural Beaches, Dunes, Bluffs, and Rock Shores," (T. Bernd-Cohen and M. Gordon), Coastal Management 27:187-217, 1999, indicates that Wisconsin has policies restricting shoreline stabilization. Laws and regulations guiding beach erosion policy in Wisconsin include:

  • Wisconsin Statutes, Ch. 30
  • Wisconsin Administrative Code NR 115, NR 116, NR 117

Statutes are available at

Wisconsin Statute 30, Navigable Waters, Harbors and Navigation, Section 30.12 Structures and deposits in navigable waters requires a permit to put any material beyond the determined bulkhead line, which is the defined shoreline.

Riprap used to repair an existing structure is exempt from this statute if the structure is within 300 feet in length in areas other than “areas of special natural resource interest”. If base substrate is also going to be replaced the structure can only be 100 feet in length. Larger replacement projects and new projects require permitting.

The permitting system is dependent on if the shoreline is classified at low, medium or high energy sites. Seawalls are permitted for high energy sites and are limited to marinas, navigational channels or where existing slopes are steep in low and medium energy sites.

Wisconsin has promoted evaluation of other “soft” structure methods to control erosion including brush layering, biodegradable breakwaters and fiber rolls.

The WI Admin. Code is available at

Retaining walls or seawalls require state permits. A fee is also required. Because of their potential for harming fish and wildlife habitat, and other public rights, construction of retaining walls is only allowed in limited situations. It is recommended that erosion control alternatives such as vegetation or other structural methods such as rock riprap are first considered. More info.

Statutory reference:
Section 30.12(3)(a)3., Wis. Stats.
30.12 Structures and deposits in navigable waters prohibited; exceptions; penalty.
(3) PERMITS TO PLACE CERTAIN STRUCTURES OR DEPOSITS IN NAVIGABLE WATERS. (a) The department, upon application, may grant to a riparian owner a permit to:
3. Place riprap or similar material on the bed and bank of navigable waters adjacent to an owner's property for the purpose of protecting the bank and adjacent land from erosion.

The WCMP leads a collaborative effort to develop scientifically sound methodologies for evaluating the impacts of groins and piers along the Lake Michigan shoreline. The results of this work will provide guidelines for the placement of these types of structures.

The State Hazard Mitigation Plan sets the framework for the development and implementation of mitigation measures aimed at preventing — rather than responding to — natural hazards in the state.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has regulatory responsibility for erosion hazard response. Potential funding sources for erosion hazard response include Wisconsin Emergency Management, including Public Assistance Grants, Disaster Housing Grants, and Other Needs Assistance Grants.


The Wisconsin Shoreline Inventory and Oblique Photo Viewer provides the results of shoreline inventories that were conducted along Wisconsin's Lake Michigan and Lake Superior shorelines in 1976-78 and in 2007-8. Data layers show photos, shore structures, beach protection and bluff condition.

Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission has prepared an inventory of shoreline erosion control structures for Racine County.

In 1999, The US Army Corps of Engineers inventoried shore protection structures in five counties along the Lake Michigan shoreline. This information is being used to assist in determining the level of shore protection that may reasonably exist along these shorelines over the next 50 years, as well as the level of potential damage that these structures may prevent (or cause). The objective of this study was to estimate future structural shore protection trends along each reach of shoreline, in each of the five counties, for each of five alternate water level scenarios under consideration. The current shoreline classification database includes an inventory of shore protection type, level of performance, and spatial coverage based on a review of 1997 aerial photography. More information and details can be found here.

The US Army Corps of Engineers has prepared an analysis of structural shore protection impacts in the Great Lakes Region. The objective of this task is to determine the interdependence between coastal processes and the extent, type and quality of structural shore protection put in place along the Lake Michigan shoreline. Many coastal processes influence the effectiveness of shore protection structures over their design life. Alternatively, structural shore protection has a direct and measurable effect upon alongshore sediment transport interfering with natural processes of beach accretion and erosion.

There are three key activities associated with this task:

A project to regrade a hillside and construct a 2,700-foot-long revetment that extends out into Lake Michigan was completed by Concordia University in Mequon in 2007. Since then, owners of neighboring properties have experienced increased bluff erosion and owners of 13 properties have built or rebuilt revetments, according to the the state Department of Natural Resources. Chin H. Wu of UW-Madison's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering studied the project independently over a six-year period. In a paper published in the Journal of Great Lakes Research in 2014, he found the revetment appeared to harm neighboring properties. Andrew Struck, a member of a state coastal natural hazards work group and director of planning and parks for Ozaukee County, said Wu's study shows such projects can have negative consequences. "When you have a structure that extends out into the lake, you have to be careful because they can change the dynamics of erosion along the bluff," Struck said. More on this. October 2015 update.

The Fiscal Year 2017 Civil Works Budget for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers provides $4.62 billion in gross discretionary funding for the Civil Works program. This budget lists proposed projects and the associated budget justification by state.


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

Gregg Breese, Shoreland Team Leader
Phone: 608-261-6430

Perception of Effectiveness

As noted above, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has performed an Analysis of Shore Protection Impacts. The study concluded:

Changing lake levels are expected to have some effects on the evaluated structures. Rising and falling water levels have different effects on the stability of these structures; however, cycles of rising and falling water levels may result in a complex combined effect. For example, low levels may increase toe scour, reducing the toe resistance for sheetpile wall bulkheads, and high water levels increase the likelihood of overtopping which may increase stresses on the structure. We note that the effects described here are associated with the evaluated structures under the selected wave characteristics and changes in the lake levels. More severe wave characteristics and lake level changes may have even more severe effects. In this section, we summarize the potential effects evaluated in this study, and present our conclusions.

Based on the evaluation completed in this study and engineering judgment, we developed an estimate of the percentage loss of the values of the shore protection structures over a 50-year period. This estimate was prepared to aid in the development of a cost estimate for the potential damage due to potential changes in Lake Michigan levels and should be used for this purpose only. The estimates are for privately-owned structures only. It is assumed for this study that publicly-owned structures were adequately designed, constructed, and maintained.

Public Education Program

As part of a multi-year strategy to assist in developing the coastal hazards policy, WCMP, University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute, the State Cartographer's Office, WDNR, and Wisconsin Emergency Management (WEM) formed a Coastal Hazards Work Group to provide technical assistance and coordinate state resources. The Work Group determined that improved information was the most important factor in managing for coastal hazards. They are developing a comprehensive education program regarding erosion rates and flood-prone areas directed at the public, government officials, and the private sector. The education program includes workshops, a Wisconsin Shores DVD, and lectures. The Wisconsin Coastal Management Program developed the DVD, "Wisconsin Shores: Coastal Erosion in the Great Lakes," as part of their 2002-2006 Coastal Zone Enhancement (Section 309) strategy. The DVD combines a case study of several homes damaged and/or destroyed by a 2002 landslide along Lake Superior, with animation and narration, to illustrate risks associated with coastal erosion. The DVD also emphasizes the important role shoreline planning plays in avoiding unnecessary losses in the future.

The 2006 Assessment states:

" develop an education and outreach component, the WCMP used 309 funds for five projects. For one project, the Bay-Lake Regional Planning Commission developed criteria to review permit groins and solid piers on Lake Michigan, and trained Department of Natural Resources staff to implement the criteria. In another project, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Business School developed concepts and methods to express coastal erosion risks in terms suited for insurance professionals and proposed corresponding risk management strategies. Section 309 funds supported an educational workshop on bluff erosion in Lake Michigan, held by the Ozaukee County Land and Water Conservation Department. The target audience for the session was property owners and local officials. Over 140 participants attended the workshop. Bayfield County Outreach Sessions, held by the Bayfield County Land Records Department, attracted over 100 participants. Finally, the WCMP worked with the Bayfield County Land Records Department to develop the Village of Oliver Coastal Slump Educational DVD. The project highlights a landslide event in 2002 which affected seven homes. The WCMP is in the process of distributing the DVD."

The 2011-2015 Needs Assessment reported:

"WCMP funded a report titled “Managing Coastal Hazards in Wisconsin’s Changing Climate.” In addition to detailing coastal hazards and risk management on Wisconsin’s shores, the report provides recommendations. One is to restrict shore protection structures and encourage non-structural options. The Coastal Hazards Work Group and WCMP will use the report and its recommendations in future efforts."

Also see A Guide to Planning for Coastal Communities in Wisconsin and A Resource Guide for Great Lakes Coastal Hazards in Wisconsin.

Additional information on coastal hazards is available at

The US Army Corps of Engineers has posted a "Shoreline Task Force Consensus Document" (April 2003) on its website.

Also on this website is Living on the Coast, which describes how natural processes affect the coast, including changes in lake levels, storms and storm surges, waves and wave climate, transport of sediment, ice on the shore, shoreline erosion, lakebed erosion, and movement of water on the land. The booklet also describes how to protect coastal investments by adapting to natural processes, restoring a natural shoreline, moderating coastal erosion, armoring the shore, stabilizing bluffs and banks, controlling surface water and groundwater, building environmentally friendly shore protection structures, and working with engineers and contractors. The final section covers risk management and the economics of protecting your coastal investment, including shoreline property features and value, government regulations to protect a coastal investment, costs of shore protection, and accounting for climate change.

State of the Beach Report: Wisconsin
Wisconsin Home Beach Description Beach Access Water Quality Beach Erosion Erosion Response Beach Fill Shoreline Structures Beach Ecology Surfing Areas Website
2011 7 SOTB Banner Small.jpg