While flooding and erosion are wreaking havoc for waterfront businesses and property owners, the changes are creating business opportunities for local marine construction and dock companies, who say they’ve been busy with scheduled projects and inundated with calls in recent weeks.
“The phone calls just keep on coming, and we’re already extremely busy,” said Matt Slowen, owner of Pro-Tech Marine Inc. in Grand Haven. “I have not seen this volume of phone calls in all the years I’ve been doing this.”
Steve Horn with ClearWater Marine LLC out of Holland echoed those sentiments.
“We’re building it as fast as we can and raising them as quick as can,” he said.
However, property owners looking for a quick fix for their seawalls and permanent docks often face unexpected delays tied to government permitting processes.
Installing a new permanent structure such as a seawall or dock on inland lakes requires a permit from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), formerly the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), which can take an average 60-90 days. For docks, marinas and boat lifts on the Great Lakes or waterways navigable from Lake Michigan, such as Muskegon Lake, Spring Lake or the lower Grand River, property owners need a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Other federal, state and local regulations also can come into play. In some cases, the process hinges on required project drawings and neighbors’ approvals. A permit is also required to repair or change an existing seawall or dock.
“It’s a fairly long process and you really have to have the permit in hand to proceed with any type of a seawall or a permanent dock installation,” said John Wesslund of WaterWorks Marine in Marne.
Even if a company comes out and takes a look at the problem, fixing it probably won’t get underway until fall or next year. The high water and ongoing rain has delayed many scheduled projects, Wesslund said.
Pro-Tech Marine works on waterways governed by the Corps of Engineers, where the permit process averages three to five months, Slowen said, noting his crew is working on projects that were scheduled last season. Right now, he is referring calls to permit specialists in the hopes of getting projects underway by September or October. He predicts another busy season next year with reports that water levels will remain high.
“It’s a good thing that it is regulated,” Slowen said. “When we do have a situation like this, with the water being high, it would be nice to have things we could do to help people out, but unfortunately that is not the case.”
A seawall can range from $15,000 to $100,000, meaning any fix will not come cheaply or quickly, said Wesslund at WaterWorks Marine.
“It’s going to be a major home improvement, but it can pay off in the long run,” he said. “It will save your property; it will save it from erosion and washing out.”
Buildings that are at the same grade as the water, or experience constant flooding, may need to be jacked up or elevated. A seawall in front is not going to resolve the problem because there is still going to be water, and it has to drain somewhere, Wesslund said.
“We really can’t build a seawall at a higher elevation than the ground level of the house,” he said.
In the case of a permanent dock that stays in year-round, it can be costly to put a new surface on top of a submerged structure. Another option is to raise up the dock by adding extensions to the supporting posts, but that becomes an issue if the water goes down because the dock then would be too high to use comfortably.
“It gets to be an individual situation where you have to look at what you are dealing with, if it’s on a river, if it’s on a lake, and what the long-term effects are going to be on that particular product,” Wesslund said.
A 25-year veteran of the marine construction industry, Wesslund said the quickest fix on an inland lake is to install a temporary floating dock. Even then, a project can cost upwards of $20,000. A temporary dock helps alleviate most seasonal water fluctuations because it moves up and down with the water level and can be taken out in the fall. Still, some structures require a permanent piling, which means that property owners will still need a state permit, he said.
Because of the length of time it takes to receive a permit and perform the work on marine construction projects, firms say they’ve been able to avoid huge spikes in business and the need to staff up quickly, a tall order in a tight labor market.
Looking ahead, Wesslund of WaterWorks Marine recommends waterfront businesses and property owners take preventative measures now to avoid problems in the future.
“Some of the new customers do not have any type of erosion control presently,” Wesslund said, noting that many people underestimate the force of water and the effect of lake conditions on infrastructure. “With nothing there, they are exposed to the harsh marine environment.”