PORTAGE — Mayor John Cannon said when he was at the Lakefront Park and Riverwalk earlier this year to discuss the devastating erosion, he was concerned that the rising lake waters would eventually break through the dunes and potentially jeopardize the pavilion.
His fears have come true, and the city police and fire departments are now calling for closing the $17 million city-managed lakefront pavilion that's the gateway for many of the 3.6 million annual visitors to the Indiana Dunes National Park, he said.
High waves on Lake Michigan breached the dune just west of the pavilion for the first time last week, and waves were seen rushing into the area again Monday, according to Indiana Dunes National Park Superintendent Paul Labovitz.
The lake waters gained access to the pannes area, which he described as a smaller body of water directly south of the dunes that is connected to the lake levels.
While a dramatic video of the breach shows the 3,500-square-foot lakefront pavilion surrounded on three sides by water, Labovitz said the pavilion is not yet in danger.
"There is no immediate threat to that building," he said.
But Cannon does not agree.
"I still don't believe that," he said.
Cannon said he feared earlier this year that the building's foundation was a risk and is even more concerned now that the nearby dune has been breached.
City police and fire officials are calling for the site to be closed to the public because they do not have the equipment needed to reach anyone caught in the breached area, he said.
Cannon said officials with the city and Indiana Dunes National Park will be meeting Friday to discuss the next move.
In the meantime, Cannon is calling on state lawmakers, who studied the erosion problem this summer, to free up the $1 million needed to start a dredging and sand replenishment program as a short-term response to the beach erosion problem.
The effort is needed to buy time while efforts continue to secure funding for the local share of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study of long-term solutions for eroded Lake Michigan beaches, he said.
Both of these approaches are needed to save the lakefront site, which is the most popular in the newly christened national park, said Lorelei Weimer, executive director of Indiana Dunes Tourism.
"It's just shocking," Weimer said while at the site Tuesday afternoon. "Literally, the dune is gone."
The park area is particularly significant because of its history of being a reclaimed industrial site, she said.
"There's a lot involved in this site," Weimer said.
Labovitz said last week's breaching of the dunes wound up helping the beach in a natural replenishing of sand. But the big question is whether shelf ice will arrive in time this winter to protect the shoreline against further battering until more help arrives.
"How are we going to make it through the winter and what will it look like in the spring?" he asked. "The shelf ice really does protect things."
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