Rip Rap Rapport


Butch Lobermeier, Bayfield County Conservationist

Most residents and visitors to our lakes and streams have observed changes in shoreline vegetation brought about by changes in land use and shoreline development patterns.  Often the vegetation that follows near shore disturbances is not as efficient at protecting the shorelines from erosion as the native vegetation was.  Commonly, these areas with less protective shoreline vegetation, coupled with ever increasing watercraft traffic create conditions that allow for excessive rates of erosion along shorelines.  When the shorelines begin to visibly recede, landowners mobilize to put a stop to it.

This desire by landowners to act promptly and aggressively to mitigate water quality and habitat problem on their waterways is usually a good thing.  Unfortunately, what the Zoning Department and Land and Water Conservation Department are seeing all too often are landowners concluding that rip rap, the placement of a thick wall of rocks along the shoreline, is the silver bullet solution for their erosion problems.  While properly installed rip rap will halt erosion, rip rap is an unnatural structure that reduces critical habitat quality, often transfers erosion problems further along the shoreline, and rarely addresses the root causes of the erosion.  As such, the installation of expensive rip rap is often not a necessary practice in controlling shoreline erosion, especially on natural lakes.

Installing rip rap always alters the natural habitat of the shoreline by excluding the possibility of having natural vegetation. There are few natural shorelines in Wisconsin that have even a slight resemblance to a rip rap shoreline.  The natural shorelines on the lakes of Northern Wisconsin are wooded ecosystems.  Terrestrial and aquatic animals have evolved with this ecosystem and it is essential to their life cycles.  Shifting the near shore cover from vegetation to rock diminishes the ability of the ecosystem to sustain itself.  While soils in some areas may be very rocky, creating a cobbled shoreline, one would be hard-pressed to find any natural area with walls of rock piled up above the ordinary high water mark (OHWM).  On our lakes, vegetation quickly establishes itself along the shoreline both above and below the OHWM if allowed to follow normal succession patterns.  The vegetation flourishes because it is adapted to the conditions at that specific site.  The roots, leaves and stems of these stems hold soil in place, reducing erosion and providing critical habitat that is lacking in a rock-only zone.

Bayfield County citizens value their water resources and have proven their commitment to water and habitat quality by supporting shoreland zoning ordinances that are much more protective of the resource than current state laws.  All rip rap projects in Bayfield County require at least two permits: one from the DNR covering the area below OHWM and one from the Zoning Department covering the area above the OHWM.  County zoning has jurisdiction because it is impossible to install rip rap without affecting the area above the OHM.  Where wetlands are also involved, the Army Corps of Engineers may also require a permit.

A DNR Rip Rap Permit Application can be found on the DNR website.  To be eligible for a state rip rap permit, the site must only meet the moderate energy level as calculated on the Wave Energy Calculator model.  If the site meets the wave energy threshold, a DNR permit can be issued.  The DNR permit does not necessarily require mitigation of any conditions on the upland areas that maybe causing the shoreline erosion.\

Bayfield County Zoning Ordinances are more restrictive than the state is.  They require mitigation of all the issues affecting water quality on the site as a condition for issuance the county shoreland grading permit needed to begin any rip rap project.  An assessment is made of the site to determine if rip rap is actually necessary, and a mitigation plan must be prepared that identifies actions to be taken by the landowner that will become conditions for issuance of the county permit. The mitigation plan will include actions needed to bring the site into compliance with current zoning standards such as defining the 30-foot access corridor, establishing a functional buffer of native vegetation, and controlling stormwater runoff from the upland areas.

There are several rip rap scenarios that are putting some waterfront landowners of Bayfield County in a tight spot. Most commonly, landowners are not applying for the required County Shoreland Grading Permit after receiving their DNR permit.  Other landowners want to create “The Look” (that perfectly installed seawall of rock with manicured edge) so much so that they do it without any permits at all.  A recent development has been the inappropriate use of the rip rap repair exemption to install rip rap on low energy sites that do not otherwise qualify for a state permit.  There is also a significant problem with improperly designed and installed rip rap that fails to protect the shoreline adequately once installed. These actions by landowners and contractors can lead to after the fact fees, penalties, expensive litigations, mitigations, restorations and complications that can be costly to landowners and taxpayers alike.

The permitting process is a bit murky for those not involved regularly with it.  The present system for rip rap permitting lacks clear lines of communication and notification between the agencies holding the authority and responsibility to assure consistency and resource protection.  This can lead to confusion and frustration for landowners and unnecessary expenses for program administrators enforcing the ordinances. Bayfield County Zoning, DNR and Land and Water Conservation are working  to clarify the procedure and streamline communications so that rip rap projects can be effectively implemented where they are appropriate, while maintaining the quality riparian habitat on our waterways.  The coming changes should be very helpful in understanding and following the permitting requirements.


Website Editor’s note:
The penalty for installing rip rap without proper permit can exceed $600 plus removal of the rock and restoration of the shoreline. Contact the county or the DNR for information about rip rapping prior to beginning your project.