The federal government is offering only a trickle as Milwaukee seeks a flood of money to overhaul a damaged central breakwater protecting downtown and the Lake Michigan port.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and is responsible for most harbor breakwaters, years ago determined the Milwaukee breakwater is in need of overall repair, said Larry Sullivan, chief engineer for the Port of Milwaukee. But the proposed 2011 Corps budget includes only $625,000 for an Army Corps ship and crew to repair the most-damaged parts of the structure.
“There’s probably a billion dollars worth of development here that the breakwater is there to protect,” he said.
A broken breakwater is not unique in the Great Lakes. The Army Corps’ 2009-13 capital plan reported that 80 percent of the breakwaters in the Great Lakes are older than the 50 years they were designed to last.
Annual budgets simply don’t dedicate enough money to keep up with needs, said Bill O’Donoghue, chief of the Army Corps Detroit office’s technical services branch.
“They just don’t fund these repairs anymore,” he said. “If we get two a year, that would surprise me.”
According to the Army Corps’ five-year plan, the Great Lakes breakwaters would need $38.5 million in construction work in 2011, $49.1 million in 2012 and $37.1 million in 2013.
Milwaukee’s breakwater is leaning in some places after ice ripped the protective metal sheeting off exterior areas, Sullivan said. The Port of Milwaukee has asked the Army Corps to pay for a replacement and requested members of Congress add the project when considering the Army Corps’ annual budgets, he said.
So far, nothing has worked, Sullivan said.
If the breakwater fails, ships no longer will be able to dock in the port, and recreational boaters will avoid the city, Milwaukee Harbor Commissioner Ronald San Felippo said.
“We continue to develop ourselves as an attraction,” he said. “As a Great Lakes port, having a safe breakwater is a major part of that.”
O’Donoghue said the Army Corps prioritizes projects based on the condition of the breakwaters and the amount of shipping at each port. The city of Milwaukee ships enough cargo to qualify for the money, but a replacement project for the Milwaukee breakwater has not yet been designed.
If the breakwater is not replaced, the worst-case scenario is lake water levels rise and a huge storm sends waves over the breakwater and floods the Milwaukee shoreline.
That, however, is very unlikely because water levels are comparatively low this year, Sullivan said.
“If we were at the all-time high water level, and we had a 100-year storm,” he said, “then the wave energy would go over the top.”