Task force designing alternatives for protecting Buffalo Reef

A team of engineers and scientists from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is working with the Buffalo Reef Task Force to develop cost estimates and other details for three finalist action plans aimed at protecting the reef’s important Lake Superior fish habitat.

After extensive consultation with the public and other stakeholders, the Buffalo Reef Task Force recently narrowed its list of 13 action plans under consideration to three.

Over the past roughly 100 years, historic copper mine tailings from the Wolverine and Mohawk mines – called stamp sands – were deposited at a milling site along Lake Superior, located in the community of Gay in Keweenaw County.

Since that time, the stamp sands have been moved by winds and waves south down the shoreline roughly 5 miles, inundating natural sand beach areas and threatening to cover spawning habitat and recruitment areas important to Lake Superior whitefish and lake trout in and around Buffalo Reef.

“The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission has determined that Buffalo Reef contributes approximately 30% of the lake trout harvested within 50 miles of the reef,” said task force member Evelyn Ravindran, natural resources director of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community in L’Anse.

The reef is situated off the Keweenaw Peninsula’s Grand Traverse Harbor.

The three finalist action plans include:

Building a retaining wall to contain the stamp sands at the original pile, as well as the stamp sands dredged from the lake and beach.
Building a landfill in an upland area near the community of Gay for the stamp sands removed from the lake and beach.
Placement of stamp sands removed from the lake and beach in the tailing basins at the former White Pine Mine in Ontonagon County.
The team of engineers and scientists is working to develop preliminary implementation cost estimates and to identify potential benefits and risks for each alternative.

The task force will present the costs and benefits of the three designs to the public with the end goal of selecting the best alternative. After that, if funding is available, the selected alternative, or alternatives, will be fully designed and ready to be implemented.

Additional work

Meanwhile, the Michigan DNR is funding efforts to pull back a 25-foot-tall cliff adjacent to the shoreline at the original stamp sands pile at Gay.

“On average, about 26 feet of material from the cliff erodes into Lake Superior annually, even more at today’s record high lake levels,” said Stephanie Swart, a task force member and Lake Superior coordinator for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. “Pulling the cliff back and depositing the material farther away from the lake will dramatically reduce new erosion into Lake Superior.”

While this work is taking place – scheduled to begin in November – the task force will continue its efforts to develop and implements a long-term management plan for saving Buffalo Reef.

Dredging activity

Earlier this year, Peterson Companies, Inc. completed its dredging in and near the Grand Traverse Harbor. Anticipated 2019 dredging of the “trough” north of Buffalo Reef was postponed until next year, after equipment and other delays.

“The trough dredging is designed to prevent stamp sands driven by waves and lake currents from passing over the trough and onto the reef,” said Tony Friona, liaison to the Great Lakes for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Engineer Research and Development Center in Buffalo, New York. “While regrettable, the delay is unavoidable.”


In February, the task force issued an alternatives analysis which briefly described 13 potential strategies for managing the stamp sands.

After that, the task force sought public comment on whether there were additional management strategies the group should consider and whether any adjustments should be made to the management strategies or risks described in the draft analysis.

In May, the task force released a responsiveness summary to public comments on the analysis of the alternatives.

On June 20, the task force met to review the 13 alternatives and hone the finalists down to the three options, which are now being fleshed out with specific costs and feasibility.

A public meeting on the alternatives was held in Lake Linden in July.

In August, Chris Korleski, director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes National Program Office in Chicago, toured the project area over a 2-day trip, consulting with several experts involved in the effort.

This project – which is being funded through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative – is being executed in cooperation between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy to save the 2,200-acre reef.

For more information on the ongoing effort to save Buffalo Reef, visit Michigan.gov/BuffaloReef.

To sign up for Buffalo Reef email updates, visit Michigan.gov/DNR and see the bottom left-hand corner of the webpage.