The City of Port Washington is right to pressure Congress to fix the breakwater, but its first priority should be to get safety devices in placeâ€”now
Comments by city officials last week about the Port Washington breakwater were as refreshing as a cool lake breeze on a steamy August day.
The mayor and an alderman recognized that the breakwater is an important recreational resource that has become a menace to users.
Call it an epiphany. Or maybe a eureka moment. The city has rediscovered the seawall that has marked the north side of its harbor for more than 80 years.
Itâ€™s about time. The breakwater has been dangerous for years, not just because the concrete on its outer third is deteriorating, but because ladders essential to the survival of someone who falls off the breakwater are broken and there are no liferings.
This has been brought to the cityâ€™s attention repeatedly, most dramatically several years ago when a fishermen fell into the water and, with no ladder available, was fortunate to be pulled to safety by fellow anglers.
Yet the city government has not lifted a finger to provide basic, inexpensive safety features for a facility that its officials acknowledge is a popular means of enjoying Lake Michigan for residents and visitors.
There still would be no plan to fill this obvious need if it werenâ€™t for a citizensâ€™ Water Safety Committee that is trying to raise $800 for new ladders and $4,000 for a series of liferings with throw ropes.
Mayor Tom Mlada and Ald. Bill Driscoll, a member of a new city committee formed to lobby Congress to approve spending federal money to repair the breakwater, voiced worries about the breakwaterâ€™s crumbling concrete. â€śThe danger is so imminent that we need to be out there asking for funding, asking for repairs,â€ť Mlada said. Driscoll, referring to the eastern portion of the breakwater, warned, â€śItâ€™s only a matter of time before this thing goes.â€ť
Theyâ€™re right, of course. The structure is in terrible shape. Which is all the more reason the first priority should be to get safety devices in place. Large chunks of the concrete deck have broken off, increasing the chances of a walker falling. Repairs are not likely for years. The ladders and liferings are needed now.
The Water Safety Committee, formed following a tragic drowning last summer, has an ambitious agenda of needed beach and harbor safety improvements, and will be hard-pressed to complete it through private fundraising. The city needs to help. It should start by picking up the modest cost of the breakwater safety devices and expediting their installation.
It was a good move to create a city breakwater lobbying committee that is tasked to beg, cajole, hector, do whatever it takes to get Congressâ€™ attention to the need for the federal government to take responsibility for the breakwater it owns and is supposed to maintain.
But that is an uphill fight. In the eyes of the agency in charge of harbors, the Army Corps of Engineers, the breakwater is a low priority. The city is no longer a port used by commercial ships, and the Corps has no interest in recreational uses of breakwaters.
At least it can be said that the city and its breakwater committee have right on their side. Itâ€™s the federal governmentâ€™s responsibility to fix the breakwaterâ€”period. Rep. Tom Petri, whose district includes Port Washington and the harbor area, owes his constituents an effort to get someone in Washington to understand that.
Meanwhile, the problem is only going to get worse. Once again, the Water Safety Committee has stepped up with a plan for action, this one to make interim repairs at a cost of $50,000. Itâ€™s another good idea, but a steep slope to climb for a private fundraising effort. Still, it might get done before the federal government moves on breakwater repair.
Either way, progress on a breakwater fix is going to take a while. Ladders and liferings, on the other hand, can be ready for this season. The city should make that happen.