The Buffalo North Breakwater structure located at the entrance into Buffalo Harbor is maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Buffalo District and is critical to the Great Lakes Navigation System. The structure serves to protect the northerly entrance into the Buffalo Harbor, the entrance into the Black Rock Canal and the downtown waterfront from powerful natural forces such as storm surges, large waves and ice.
Similar to many structures across the Great Lakes, this structure is over 100 years old and has gone through some routine maintenance throughout the years to handle the onslaught of Mother Nature.
A Halloween night storm in 2019 caused 20-foot waves in Lake Erie and significant damage to the North breakwater. A few nights later, another storm added to that damage. The resulting breach in the breakwater totaled approximately 150-250 linear feet. This left the Buffalo Harbor behind the break wall, to include the Erin Basin Marina, exposed and susceptible to high wave action and erosion.
This repair is similar to other aging infrastructure repairs across the Great Lakes and presents significant challenges to USACE for several reasons.
“The Great Lakes have over 100 miles of navigation structures and the funds available are far less than what is needed for significant repairs,” said Josh Feldmann, Chief of Operations for USACE, Buffalo District. “The Corps of Engineers has to be diligent in prioritizing efforts on the worst structures due to the extremely high cost to conduct the repairs.”
The North Breakwater project itself will cost approximately $16 million to repair to its original elevation and to add sizeable stone for just the breach alone. Across the Great Lakes, the overall cost of these types of repairs is extremely expensive.
In addition to a lack of funding, the other challenge is the difficulty of working in this type of marine environment. The working conditions are often dictated by weather and sometimes volatile conditions along the Great Lakes. The repair work itself is extremely expensive due to the need for specialized trades, equipment and massive amounts of construction materials.
From Feldmann’s point of view in Operations and Maintenance, these reasons make it critical to invest and maintain aging infrastructure now because the navigation industry depends on it. The Great Lakes navigation industry is somewhat unique because moving and shipping raw goods to harbors is the backbone of manufacturing in the Region. It is essential to maintain these structures for safe and efficient navigation within the Great Lakes harbors.
Investing in infrastructure is important for the public and for USACE missions.
For example, the Buffalo North Breakwater structure provides safe navigation and protection within the Buffalo Harbor and boaters often stay behind the structure to avoid wind and waves. Indirectly, Great Lakes navigation is vital to the shipping industry and eventually the Nation’s economy.
In addition, safe and efficient navigation is essential to USACE missions for the Nation. Without our investment in infrastructure we are not able to accomplish our missions in O&M, Flood Risk Management and Environmental Stewardship.
As we look to the future, funding is increasing for infrastructure projects across the Great Lakes, but may not still be enough to meet our resource needs. However, we will continue to maintain our infrastructure with limited resources in order to provide safe and efficient navigation to the entire Nation.