In flooded Michigan neighborhoods, who should pay for sea walls?
The floodwaters have receded from Jefferson Chalmers for now, but evidence of the neighborhood’s recent crisis is hard to miss:
Dried algae on the sidewalks. Appliances bolted to basement walls to keep them dry. Water lines on the sides of buildings. And massive orange “tiger dams” snaking through backyards, waiting for the water to rise again.
The neighborhood — a labyrinth of canals leading to the Detroit River on the city’s far east side — is often called Detroit’s version of Venice. But for the past two summers, as Great Lakes water levels reached record highs, it has looked more like a floodplain.
Lake St. Clair overflowed, pouring water into the Detroit River and up neighborhood canals, where it breached residents’ backyard seawalls and streamed into yards, streets, basements and parks for months at a time.
“I had little Tahquamenon Falls flowing through my yard,” said John Myers, a longtime neighborhood resident who lives along one of the canals. His basement, meanwhile, was “a swimming pool.” Parts of his street were submerged knee-deep.
As the Great Lakes begin their seasonal swell, it’s too early to say whether this summer will bring more of the same. But over time, scientists expect severe floods to become increasingly common as climate change alters rainfall and temperature patterns in Michigan, bringing more intense periods of rain and drought and causing Great Lakes water levels to yo-yo more dramatically.
That leaves Myers and his neighbors with two options: Reinforce their properties to prevent the next flood, or live with the consequences.
It’s a conundrum that communities from urban southeast Michigan to the ritzy vacation enclaves of west Michigan will encounter with increasing frequency: Who should pay for climate adaptation?
An ‘ecological emergency’
The severe flooding that gripped Jefferson Chalmers in 2019 and 2020 was inconvenient, dangerous and costly.
Residents lost washers and dryers, hot water heaters and personal belongings as water rose feet deep in their basements. One man had to rip out his garage after flowing water eroded the foundation. Roads and sidewalks throughout the neighborhood were submerged for months. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9E7inhYQczQ
As of early March, neighbors said at least one home still had stagnant water pooled in the basement, its owner unable or unwilling to pump it out.
And because water flowed down storm drains, the floods also raised stormwater treatment costs. The Great Lakes Water Authority, a regional water system that serves 3.8 million residents across eight southeast Michigan counties, spent $8 million to treat an additional 7 billion gallons in 2019 alone.
When the city installed tiger dams — long, orange, water-filled tubes used as an alternative to sandbags — to stem flooding last year, crews ripped up backyard fences and destroyed gardens. The dams themselves cost Detroit taxpayers $1.4 million, city spokesperson Nicole Simmons told Bridge Michigan.
But for many Jefferson Chalmers residents, the biggest financial hit is yet to come: The only way to ensure last year’s crisis doesn’t happen again is to build higher seawalls, at a potential cost of tens of thousands of dollars per property
Currently, the seawalls along more than 75 percent of the neighborhood’s 300 waterfront parcels are inadequate to protect against a 100-year flood, Simmons said.
City officials have told residents that they are responsible for reinforcing the seawall on their private property — a common local government policy that protects taxpayers from footing the bill for private property improvements.
Last year, Simmons said, the city issued “correction orders” on every canal property, and 5 properties were cited for “major seawall violations.” Another 49, Simmons said, “will receive enforcement if they choose not to make the necessary repairs.”
But in a neighborhood with a median household income of $29,750 (a little more than half the state average) and a mix of large well-maintained homes, modest dwellings, empty lots and vacant buildings, not everybody can afford to comply.
“It's not a reasonable response to an ecological emergency,” said Miles Hutcherson, who lives on one neighborhood canal and said he was quoted $26,000 to raise his seawall. “It’s truly unrealistic to expect private citizens to be able to address this issue.”
And because floodwaters don’t respect property boundaries, the entire neighborhood will remain vulnerable to flooding if a single seawall remains too low.
The seawall conundrum
Situated atop what was once a massive marsh in the Detroit River floodplain, the area now known as Jefferson Chalmers was among the last developed areas in Detroit. But in the late 1800s, landowners began plowing ditches to drain the wetland.
Taxpayer-funded efforts soon followed, converting Fox Creek, a waterway that flowed through the marsh, into a hardened canal.
Development came next — and then flood problems.
In heavy rainstorms, water would inundate the neighborhood. It often included human waste from neighboring Grosse Pointe Park, which borders Jefferson Chalmers a block east of Fox Creek and had an agreement with the city of Detroit to discharge untreated sewage into the creek.
In the 1980s, after decades of repeated floods, neighborhood residents sued the two cities, eventually reaching a settlement that stopped the discharges.
Bob Sisler, a longtime neighborhood resident and activist, said neighbors lobbied during that time for seawall upgrades to better protect them from the creek’s floodwaters, but instead, “they did the Grosse Pointe side, and not ours.”
Across Fox Creek, a mile-long, publicly-funded seawall, which U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials said is owned by the city of Detroit, protects Grosse Pointe Park residents and a handful of Detroiters from the creek’s fluctuations. It stands several feet higher than the hodgepodge of privately-owned seawalls on the east side — that is to say, the Detroit side — of the creek.
Some neighborhood residents see it as yet another symbol of the racial and class divide between Detroit and the well-heeled, majority white suburb known for erecting physical barriers along its border and enforcing a residents-only policy at its lakeshore parks.
But it’s not that simple, said Dale Krajniak, former city manager of Grosse Pointe Park. Detroit also considered reinforcing seawalls on the west side of Fox Creek, he said, but some residents at the time objected.
Unlike the Grosse Pointe side, where the seawall abuts a public right-of-way, hundreds of backyards line the creek and canals in Jefferson Chalmers, with boat slips carved into the banks. Building a uniform seawall would have severed residents’ connection to the water, Krajniak said, and “a great many did not want to lose access.”
The result, decades later, is higher flood risks and heftier costs.
Even in low-water years, the higher seawall on the east side of Fox Creek provides Grosse Pointe Park residents with benefits most Jefferson Chalmers residents don’t enjoy. The extra flood control means the city’s low-lying Windmill Pointe neighborhood does not fall within the Federal Emergency Management Administration’s 100-year floodplain. As a result, residents there don’t have to purchase flood insurance.
Across the creek in Jefferson Chalmers, newly-drawn floodplain maps place virtually the entire neighborhood, including people who live a half-mile from the nearest canal, in FEMA’s Special Flood Hazard Zone. After the maps take effect this year, homeowners with mortgages will be required to carry flood insurance, and insurance rates will likely rise.
That only adds to Myrtle Thompson Curtis’ concerns about the shifting socioeconomic and racial makeup of her neighborhood. Curtis runs Feedom-Freedom Growers, a neighborhood group that operates a community garden abutting Fox Creek.
In recent years, Jefferson Chalmers home prices have crept steadily northward. There’s a new artisan coffee shop on Jefferson Avenue, a bra boutique just down the road, and a $14 million project to redevelop a century-old ballroom with retail on the ground floor.
The trend is expected to continue as the city plans to pour $130 million in economic development funds into Jefferson Chalmers and six other neighborhoods.
Curtis is happy to see new investment, but she fears longtime residents who endured the neighborhood’s leanest years won’t be able to hold on long enough to reap the benefits of the city-backed economic turnaround.
“There’s a feeling that people could be pushed out, priced out,” Curtis said. “It’s a little scary.”
An everyone-for-themselves approach to improving the seawalls, she worries, will only accelerate that trend: People with money will reinforce their properties. People without money will not. As a result, they’ll face higher flood insurance rates, city citations and repeated flooding. Some will be forced to move, and be replaced by wealthier newcomers who can afford a seawall.
“We need the city to pay attention to the homeowners who have been here, who have invested sweat, money and time to create something all these years,” she said.
Experts say Thompson Curtis’ concerns are valid. So-called “climate gentrification” has begun to take shape in vulnerable areas of Miami and New Orleans, as worsening flood threats spur wealthier people to migrate, displacing lower-income residents.
But communities can head off those trends if they start planning now for what they want their future to look like, said Maria Lemos, codirector of Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability and co-author of the Midwest chapter of the National Climate Assessment.
“You can’t just react,” Lemos said. “You have to think ahead and try to figure out the best way to navigate these tradeoffs.”
What’s happening in Jefferson Chalmers is not an isolated problem.
Climate and planning experts say Great Lakes coastal communities should retreat from the shoreline and floodplains where possible, seeking higher, less erosion-prone ground. Where that’s not feasible, communities should upgrade infrastructure to cope with fluctuating water levels.
“If you have infrastructure that's anywhere close to the lake, you should be thinking now about the possibility that, at some point, that infrastructure is going to be a risk,” said Richard Norton, a professor of urban and regional planning at the U-M’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.
But such decisions involve a host of tricky moral, political and practical questions, including:
- Should questions over whether to retreat or reinforce coastal land be decided differently in highly populated residential neighborhoods than in sparse vacation communities?
- Should decisions on who pays for seawalls or other reinforcements be different in low-income neighborhoods than in prosperous ones?
“These are questions that we can’t take one neighborhood at a time, one city at a time,” said Beth Gibbons, executive director of the American Society of Adaptation Professionals.
Michigan and the country need policies and programs to guide local decision making, she said.
President Biden and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer have both prioritized climate action, but comprehensive strategies — and the money to implement them — have yet to emerge. That leaves local communities to craft policies on their own, at least for now.
In Jefferson Chalmers, Josh Elling is stumping for a solution that combines the resources of local residents, city government and federal agencies.
Elling, chief executive officer of Jefferson East, Inc., a nonprofit community development group representing five eastside Detroit neighborhoods, sees the constant flooding as a displacement threat for low-income residents, and a threat to the neighborhood’s long-term economic development prospects.
His group is working to certify seawall contractors in a city program that provides no-interest home repair loans for low- to moderate-income homeowners. But, Elling acknowledged, some residents simply can’t afford a seawall, even with a loan.
“The gap-toothed approach,” he said, in which city officials expect individual residents to address a neighborhood-wide problem that, itself, is a product of global climate shifts, “isn’t going to work.”
Other ideas abound.
Some residents favor installing gates at the mouth of Fox Creek and adjacent canals to sever the neighborhood’s connection to the Detroit River when water levels are high. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers suggested such a fix in 1976, but it never came to fruition. Krajniak, of Grosse Pointe Park, said his city’s staff also recommended flood control gates.
Others are pushing the city to seek FEMA flood mitigation dollars to build a uniform seawall throughout the neighborhood. Cassie Ringsdorf, a FEMA spokesperson, said those dollars are available as grants to local governments, and FEMA generally covers 75 percent of costs.
Still others want a special assessment district, allowing neighborhood residents to share the expense of a uniform seawall, and pay down the debt over time.
“You can protect your most vulnerable population, create great new public amenities, and make us more resilient to the new normal of higher lake levels and rising precipitation,” Elling said. “Now is the time for the city to put the big-picture plans together.”
The suburbs stand to benefit, too, he said: Less flooding would mean less water pouring into storm drains, where it drives up treatment costs and stresses the Conner Creek wet weather treatment facility that serves customers throughout the region. A failure at the facility would ripple outward, causing sewage backups in residents’ basements.
But the city doesn’t have money to help, said Ray Solomon, a general manager for the Detroit Department of Neighborhoods, and “if you purchase a house, the seawall is a part of the purchase that’s your responsibility.”
The city looked for federal grant money to help, he said, but then the pandemic hit. Federal funding priorities shifted, Solomon said, and the hoped-for assistance “just never materialized.”
For now, he said, residents’ best option is to band together with their neighbors and see if they can get a group rate from a seawall contractor. The city, which owns several lots in the neighborhood, is assessing its options for paying to raise its own seawalls.
Paying for climate change
Experts say conflicts over the cost of preparing for climate change will become increasingly common — particularly in lower-income communities — unless state and federal government, businesses or philanthropists step in to help.
The neighborhood’s repeated flooding underscores the state’s need to prepare now, said Rep. Joe Tate, who lives in Jefferson Chalmers, but “it’s only a wakeup call if we do something about it.”
Biden has outlined a $2 trillion climate spending plan, and vowed to spend 40 percent on investments benefitting disadvantaged communities. And in January this year, then-President Trump signed a bill sponsored by Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, to create a revolving loan program to help local governments pay for high water mitigation projects. At the state level, Gov. Whitmer’s draft budget includes $40 million for grants to help coastal communities cope with issues like high water levels.
But none of the above solutions has yet been funded, and Jefferson Chalmers residents say they need a solution now, before water levels rise again.
For now, the tiger dams are it. City officials said they plan to keep them in place for the coming months, then re-evaluate based on predicted water levels for the summer.
The Great Lakes News Collaborative includes Bridge Michigan; Circle of Blue; Great Lakes Now at Detroit Public Television; and Michigan Radio, Michigan’s NPR News Leader; who work together to bring audiences news and information about the impact of climate change, pollution, and aging infrastructure on the Great Lakes and drinking water. This independent journalism is supported by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.