Posted on April 26, 2023
Along its vast shoreline, the effects of climate change can be seen in the shrinking beaches of Lake Michigan.
Efforts to combat erosion and storm damage in Chicago continue through the Shoreline Protection Project (SPP).
A collaboration between the City of Chicago, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Parks Department, the $500 million dollar plan targets 24 segments along nine miles of shoreline to replace existing infrastructure built in the early 1900s.
Of the original 24, two segments remain on the South Side, including Promontory Point.
“For being 100 years old, it’s done a really good job, but slowly it’s falling apart and really needs some attention,” said Mike Padilla, a project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Chicago.
Promontory Point is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was recently designated as a Chicago landmark. It will require additional public input on design and reconstruction.
Originally authorized by Congress for reconstruction in 2007, the project had not been funded until recently.
The City of Chicago’s 2023 capital bond includes $5 million to fund the planning and design of the Promontory Point segment of the project; and in December 2022, the Corps received $450,000 in federal funds to perform a third-party review.
The City will issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) later this year for the planning and design before it’s shared through a public meeting process.
Morgan Shoal is the most expensive of the original 24 projects, according to Padilla, and is also slated for reconstruction to begin soon. The city and the federal delegation secured $200,000 in federal funding to support the Morgan Shoal project.
After near-record high lake levels in 2020, emergency work was required there to secure the shoreline from erosion.
The threat to DuSable Lake Shore Drive, a major thoroughfare in the city, was concerning not only locally, but amongst politicians at the state and federal level.
Now, newly authorized funding will allow the corps and city to reevaluate the original SPP. The $3 million General Reevaluation Report will focus on areas of the shoreline that were not recommended for implementation in the original 1994 feasibility study.
“The ones that were already built have performed really, really well. That’s not what’s worrying us,” said Padilla.
“It’s more the areas that, for whatever reason back in the ’90s, they didn’t have a recommendation. They were in good shape or no apparent deterioration, but 30 years later, they are having issues.”
Many experts believe worsening conditions along the lakefront have been exacerbated by climate change.
“With a warming climate, we get more water vapor in the atmosphere, that also triggers more intense storms,” NBC Storm Team 5 Meteorologist Iisha Scott said.
“We tend to see these severe weather outbreaks, as we’ve seen these past several months, during very unusual times of the year,” Scott continued.
Lake Michigan water levels hit a record low in 2013. Seven years later, a near-record high was reached in 2020.
The unprecedented frequency of severe storms leading to record lake levels have accelerated erosion, not only in Chicago, but across much of the Lake Michigan coast, leading to the need for new, more cost-effective ways to protect it.
In Lake County, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) is installing innovative stone barriers, both above and underwater.
“Over the period of the last 80 years or so, we’ve lost over 100 acres of habitat here at Illinois State Beach Park,” said Ania Bayers, a program manager with IDNR’s Coastal Management Program.
“Erosion happens at different locations and at different rates, but it happens a lot quicker when the lake levels are much higher,” Bayers added.
The loss of habitat is detrimental beyond the shoreline, too. During extreme storm events, waves travel further inland, altering habitats, the vegetation found there and the species that can use it.
“We do have over 50 species which are on the state list of threatened and endangered species. We have four which are on a federally endangered threatened list, including the piping plover,” said Bayers.
“We have very unique habitats. These are critical habitats for the species that live here at the park,” she said. “So when we are losing those, we are losing those forever.”
To protect its rare habitat, and the recreational opportunities along the coast, IDNR and partner agencies are acting now to be proactive in planning for the future.
In 2021, they constructed “rubble ridges.” Three, 750-foot rows of stone, placed 500 feet from shore, that work in concert to lessen storm waves and protect the beach from erosion, while also supporting the natural fish habitat.
“The rubble ridges are a new, innovative design. We are hoping that is going to be one of the projects that can be used around the Great Lakes and that other communities, other states, can use that idea to protect their own shorelines,” said Bayers.
Earlier this year, state funding was also allocated to address erosion through low emergent breakwaters.
The issue of erosion is personal for State Representative Joyce Mason.
“When I was in my 20s in college, which is about 30 years ago, I would come out here and camp, I lived in Chicago at the time. The beach was huge,” said Mason, who represents Illinois’ 61st district.
“Fast forward to when my daughter was born in 2000, I would take her, and later my son, out to the beach and it was still so big. Now, if you visit the beach, there’s not much left,” Mason said.
Mason advocated for $74 million in funding from Gov. Pritzker’s “Rebuild Illinois” plan to address shoreline erosion.
“This is one of the most visited state parks in Illinois, and it’s really disappearing so rapidly,” said Mason.
The money is already being used to construct low emergent breakwaters. The island-like stone formations are being built in three sections along 2.2 miles of shoreline. The goal is to slow erosion without stopping longshore sediment transport.
Although the breakwater and rubble ridge projects in Zion and shoreline protection in Chicago are separate endeavors, the agencies involved often work in tandem to advance coastal resiliency.
They’re hopeful to set models for the future and preserve precious lakefront access for generations to come.