Shore­line un­der siege

How bit­ter cold win­ter blasts and a warm­ing planet will chew up the Lake Michi­gan banks faster and faster

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By Mor­gan Greene

On a tucked-away South Shore beach, there once were cool shal­lows to swim and buried shells to dig up. For those liv­ing feet away, there was the sound of the wa­ter, the con­stant, gen­tle splash on sand.

Then the lake be­gan to rise. With each inch came nearly 790 bil­lion gal­lons of wa­ter. The beach dis­ap­peared. Its mu­sic changed.

“Once upon a time, you could stand on the deck out there and see fish. It was so clear and the wa­ter was low,” said Char­lotte Mitchell, who has lived in a nearby condo build­ing for four decades. “Not now.”

Since 2013, the lake has risen nearly 6 feet, go­ing from a record low to near-record high lev­els last sum­mer. Last week­end, waves near­ing 20 feet pum­meled an al­ready drown­ing shore­line.

A 3-foot wave can pack the power of a small car. A 20-foot wave? Maybe a freight train.

As sci­en­tists pre­dict more ex­treme weather fu­eled by cli­mate change, Chicago is try­ing to keep its lake­front in­tact.

Pow­er­ful storms in re­cent years have punched holes in a large-scale shore­line project that was au­tho­rized more than two decades ago and is nearly com­plete. Other parts of the lake­front that fall out­side the project — like some ar­eas in Rogers Park and

“It just makes you won­der if this is cli­mate change lit­er­ally knock­ing at our back door ... or if this is more of an ebb and flow that hap­pens over a pe­riod of time.” — Tom El­liott, Rogers Beach res­i­dent

South Shore — are vul­ner­a­ble. And some of the emer­gency work un­der­taken in the past two months failed to with­stand last week­end’s storm.

Long-term so­lu­tions — de­pen­dent on more stud­ies, ad­di­tional fund­ing and a com­pli­cated bu­reau­cratic dance — are un­cer­tain.

Mean­while, beaches have been con­sumed. A South Side por­tion of the Lake­front Trail was shut down af­ter a storm on Vet­er­ans Day and isn’t ex­pected to re­open un­til spring. At one com­mu­nity meet­ing about ero­sion, a science teacher stood at the mi­cro­phone and called the sit­u­a­tion a “five-alarm fire.”

Dur­ing last week­end’s storm that closed por­tions of South Shore Drive, wa­ter surged above the re­tain­ing wall near the garage of Mitchell’s home, send­ing up tow­er­ing spouts ex­ploded by the wind. Mitchell’s hus­band, John Hayes, who re­mem­bered cars float­ing in the garage af­ter a mon­ster 1987 storm, said Sat­ur­day’s storm was “in a dif­fer­ent cat­e­gory al­to­gether.”

“The sound, the sound was so loud,” Mitchell said. “With the waves crash­ing up against the ter­race.”


Pro­found fail­ure

Last year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engi­neers re­ceived 31 re­quests for tech­ni­cal as­sis­tance re­lat­ing to shore­line pro­tec­tion by July, with 29 alone com­ing from the Chicago Park District — an in­crease that Army Corps Out­reach Man­ager David Bu­caro called “un­prece­dented.”

In re­cent months, beaches were filled with boul­ders. More than 5,000 feet of jersey bar­ri­ers and 1,000 feet of sand­bags were in­stalled along the shore to pro­tect road­ways from flood­ing.

The Chicago De­part­ment of Trans­porta­tion is eval­u­at­ing the im­pacts of the storm at Mor­gan Shoal from 48th to 50th streets and work­ing with the Army Corps to in­stall boul­ders, ac­cord­ing to spokesman Michael Claf­fey. The work is ex­pected to be­gin in the com­ing months.

“In the mean­time, the City will con­tinue to mon­i­tor and as­sess the sit­u­a­tion to im­ple­ment proac­tive mea­sures and re­spond ap­pro­pri­ately in the event of ex­treme weather,” Claf­fey said in an email.

On a freez­ing af­ter­noon in late De­cem­ber, heaps of lop­sided stone and pok­ing re­bar slouched against the city’s sky­line past 47th Street. That stretch, a sunken grave­yard, is what more of the shore­line would look like with­out the pro­tec­tions im­ple­mented in the last two decades, Bu­caro said.

“The amount of ero­sion and, re­ally, fail­ure of that ex­ist­ing revet­ment is pretty pro­found,” Bu­caro said, re­fer­ring to the pro­tec­tive struc­ture. “And if we wouldn’t have im­ple­mented this project, that would be per­va­sive up and down the shore­line. It would be in re­ally, re­ally tough shape.”

Three un­pro­tected North Side beaches ex­pe­ri­enced se­vere dam­age fol­low­ing two fall storms. Emer­gency work es­ti­mated at $3 mil­lion was com­pleted at Juneway and Howard beaches, with Rogers Beach al­most com­pleted.

Af­ter last week­end’s storm, Juneway looked largely the same as it did on a mild af­ter­noon in early De­cem­ber. The hori­zon glowed above the murky wa­ter and boul­ders were piled up where the beach used to be. The tri­an­gu­lar Quan­tum Dee sculp­ture stood up­right.

But ad­di­tional pro­tec­tions are now planned for Rogers and Howard beaches, where the shore­line was ham­mered again. Like Juneway, these beaches will now be re­placed with rock, and work is ex­pected to be com­pleted in Fe­bru­ary.

“Stand­ing at Rogers was like stand­ing in a wind tun­nel. It was just a con­stant, howl­ing gale,” said

Ald. Maria Had­den, 49th.

“It was a dif­fer­ent type of storm,” Had­den said. “Dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion. Dif­fer­ent waves. Ar­eas that hadn’t been as im­pacted be­fore were se­verely im­pacted.”

Tom El­liott had one of his first dates with his fi­ancee at Rogers Beach, and they later rented a nearby unit. Now they’re re­con­sid­er­ing whether they should try to buy in the build­ing — at a time when the lake is ris­ing and first-floor res­i­dents have put up ma­te­ri­als like plex­i­glass and ply­wood to keep win­dows from break­ing and wa­ter from com­ing in.

“And it just makes you won­der if this is cli­mate change lit­er­ally knock­ing at our back door — telling us this is a se­ri­ous is­sue, you should pay at­ten­tion to what’s go­ing on in the world,” El­liott said. “Or if this is more of an ebb and flow that hap­pens over a pe­riod of time.”

Strug­gling shore­line

Some shore­line pro­tec­tions, revet­ments of stone blocks and wooden posts con­structed a cen­tury ago, even­tu­ally col­lapsed and rot­ted. Ar­eas bol­stered with steel sheet­ing fared bet­ter, but most of the shore­line was built with the fa­tal mix that failed to ac­count for Lake Michi­gan’s fluc­tu­a­tions. With­out the walls, the Tri­bune re­ported in the years lead­ing up to the large-scale pro­tec­tion project, 20 feet of land could dis­ap­pear each year.

As lake lev­els rose to record highs in the mid-1980s and the revet­ments failed, the Tri­bune re­ported on stud­ies from the Army Corps in Jan­uary 1987 warn­ing that within the decade, Chicago could lose parts of Lake Shore Drive, first to flood­ing and then ero­sion.

A month later a storm with 14-foot waves shut down parts of the ex­press­way.

“A foot of wa­ter in a bath­tub isn’t much,” Mike Royko wrote. “But in a gi­ant lake, it’s more than enough to float all the world’s rub­ber ducks.”

In the fol­low­ing decade, the Army Corps tested more than a dozen mod­els, sim­u­lat­ing har­row­ing storms like one from Fe­bru­ary 1979 with ocean­like waves. Revet­ments with steel sheet piles were even­tu­ally cho­sen as a so­lu­tion that was more ac­cess­friendly and vis­ually ap­peal­ing than rub­ble mounds.

Mean­while, the shore­line strug­gled.

“It looks ter­ri­ble,” a chief plan­ner in the Army Corps’ Chicago of­fice told the Tri­bune in 1993 about the South Side’s Burn­ham Park, one of the hard­est hit lo­ca­tions. “The North Side is fall­ing apart, but the South Side has al­ready failed.”

In 1996, Congress au­tho­rized the Chicago Shore­line Pro­tec­tion Project and three years later, the fed­eral and lo­cal part­ner­ship be­gan work across more than 9 miles of the lake­front to pro­tect Lake Shore Drive from flood­ing and the shore­line from ero­sion.

The pro­tec­tion project was ex­pected to be com­pleted in less than 10 years, the Tri­bune re­ported, and came with a price tag of $300 mil­lion.

The Army Corps fin­ished the fed­eral share of the project in 2014 but two decades later, Mor­gan Shoal and Promon­tory Point are still in­com­plete. Mor­gan Shoal is one of the long­est reaches in the project and is costly, of­fi­cials said, while Promon­tory Point en­coun­tered op­po­si­tion from the com­mu­nity over the revet­ment’s de­sign.

The en­tire project’s cost has risen to $536 mil­lion, but of­fi­cials es­ti­mate its an­nual ben­e­fits at $194 mil­lion.

Now there’s a push for a study that reeval­u­ates the shore­line, backed by lo­cal and fed­eral agen­cies, along with con­gres­sional rep­re­sen­ta­tives, which could po­ten­tially bring aid to un­pro­tected ar­eas in­clud­ing the Rogers Park beaches and

South Side lo­ca­tions like La Rabida Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal.

U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, a Chicago Demo­crat, who con­vened a re­cent com­mu­nity meet­ing to pro­vide in­for­ma­tion and ad­dress con­cerns about ero­sion, is among the of­fi­cials ad­vo­cat­ing for the study — and for re­newed at­ten­tion on some South Side lo­ca­tions he said were not pri­or­i­tized.

Had­den agreed. “We need to make sure that we’ve got an eq­ui­table plan as we move for­ward in this next assess­ment,” the al­der­man said, “… not solely weighted on North Side, or even, in this case, cen­tral down­town com­mu­ni­ties, which is kind of what hap­pened last time.”

They’ll find out next month if fund­ing will be ap­proved.

If the study is funded this year, the best-case sce­nario is that con­struc­tion would start in four to five years, the Army Corps’ Bu­caro said.

“We’re do­ing the best we can with what we’ve been given,” Bu­caro said. “We have been seek­ing to do this study for at least six years now. And when the lake lev­els were low, there was no in­ter­est in do­ing pre­emp­tive plan­ning to ad­dress these is­sues.”

‘Enor­mous forces’

Hu­man ac­tiv­ity is chang­ing the planet’s cli­mate faster than at any time in mod­ern civ­i­liza­tion, herald­ing costly and, in some cases, life-threat­en­ing con­se­quences, sci­en­tists con­cluded in a com­pre­hen­sive 2018 re­port by the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion. For ev­ery 1 de­gree of warm­ing, the at­mos­phere can hold 4% more wa­ter va­por that can turn into pre­cip­i­ta­tion.

As the planet warms and ad­di­tional mois­ture sticks in the air, we could see more fre­quent and stronger storms.

“They’re com­ing more of­ten and when they ar­rive, they’re huge,” said Guy Mead­ows, pro­fes­sor of sus­tain­able ma­rine en­gi­neer­ing at the Great Lakes Re­search Cen­ter at Michi­gan Tech­no­log­i­cal Univer­sity.

Storms raise lake lev­els and al­low tow­er­ing waves to hit far­ther up on the beach, caus­ing ero­sion. As sand clears out, the lake bed deep­ens, al­low­ing for even taller waves, con­tin­u­ing the cy­cle. For ar­eas al­ready hit by ero­sion, it’s a one-two punch.

“You’re talk­ing about enor­mous forces,” Mead­ows said — like Sat­ur­day’s waves and surges that cracked trees, dis­lodged as­phalt and up­ended sed­i­ment.

“Even if you’re get­ting hit by a 3-foot wave,” Mead­ows said, “It’s the equiv­a­lent of get­ting hit by a Volk­swa­gen.”

In ad­di­tion, hard­ened shore­lines, like those in Chicago, can de­crease the dis­si­pa­tion of big­ger waves.

The worst storms typ­i­cally come in the fall and win­ter sea­sons, Mead­ows said.

“I think we’re go­ing to see much more vari­abil­ity in the next few decades,” Mead­ows said. “So what can you do about it? You just need to be pre­pared for big rain storms, big floods, big shore­line ero­sion, big waves. Fol­lowed by episodes where all the equip­ment you bought last year sits in the barn and you wait for it to hap­pen again.”

The Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion ex­pects Lake Michi­gan lev­els to re­main high over the next sev­eral months and to po­ten­tially break monthly records in Jan­uary and Fe­bru­ary.

Lake lev­els fluc­tu­ate on mul­ti­ple scales, but cli­mate change could be con­tribut­ing to more pro­nounced vari­a­tions, ac­cord­ing to Univer­sity of Michi­gan as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor Drew Gronewold.

Global ef­fects on pre­cip­i­ta­tion are al­most im­pos­si­ble to pre­dict a year out, Gronewold said.

But as tem­per­a­tures and pre­cip­i­ta­tion in­crease an­nu­ally, “the os­cil­la­tions be­tween wa­ter lev­els and ex­tremes are likely to change in ways that we haven’t seen be­fore,” Gronewold said. He pointed to the more than 4-foot swing from 2013 to 2016, one of the high­est rates of wa­ter level rise dur­ing a three-year pe­riod ever for Lake Michi­gan. Above-av­er­age pre­cip­i­ta­tion was the dom­i­nant fac­tor in the in­crease, but be­low-av­er­age evap­o­ra­tion was also a fac­tor — which can be caused by the freez­ing of the lake from a po­lar vor­tex.

“Does it make a dif­fer­ence to a com­mu­nity or to a plan­ning group or to some­one putting in in­fras­truc­ture if you hit high wa­ter con­di­tions ev­ery 10 to 15 years, or if you hit them ev­ery two to five years?” Gronewold said. “At what point does it be­come too fre­quent for peo­ple to tol­er­ate?”

The Park District is shar­ing drone footage of the shore­line with other agen­cies to ver­ify what res­i­dents and work­ers are see­ing on the ground.

“No one agency can re­ally tackle this on our own,” said Heather Glea­son, the Park District’s direc­tor of plan­ning and de­vel­op­ment. “So we need to part­ner up with every­one.”

The footage, col­lected over sunny sum­mer days and ex­pected to be shared at fu­ture com­mu­nity meet­ings, shows the gen­eral sta­bil­ity of newer revet­ments — and what’s hap­pened to those that are un­guarded.

The city’s Trans­porta­tion De­part­ment is also work­ing with the Park District and the Army Corps to as­sess the im­pacts of last week­end’s storm and de­ter­mine how the ex­ist­ing shore­line pro­tec­tion plans need to be ad­justed, said Claf­fey, the de­part­ment spokesman.

There is also the Great Lakes Coastal Re­siliency Study, which would look at fu­ture vari­abil­ity and de­sign pa­ram­e­ters to use go­ing for­ward across all the Great Lakes, also backed by the Army Corps, but it has yet to be fed­er­ally funded.

“We rec­og­nize that vari­abil­ity is go­ing to be a chal­lenge go­ing for­ward, and we want to get ahead of it,” Bu­caro said.

Run­ning out of time

Even if a new study is ap­proved, res­i­dents like Char­lotte Mitchell who live on swaths of pri­vate prop­erty in South Shore and Rogers Park have been told they’re largely on their own. Their condo boards are hir­ing engi­neers and be­gin­ning per­mit pro­cesses and have been given con­tact in­for­ma­tion for the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency.

Joyce Brown, a res­i­dent in Mitchell’s build­ing, showed up at a re­cent com­mu­nity meet­ing ex­as­per­ated. She was frus­trated with the lack of an­swers on how the board could raise the re­tain­ing wall to pre­vent flood­ing, and felt that the South Side was be­ing ne­glected.

“I left that meet­ing more con­cerned than when I walked through the door,” Brown said. “It might be a lit­tle eas­ier for me to pack up and move, but not for ev­ery­body in this build­ing. We’ve got a lot of se­niors who are re­tired now, bought their con­dos years ago.”

Juanita Irizarry, of Friends of the Parks, which has ad­vo­cated for a pub­lic lake­front, said there’s a bal­ance be­tween the beauty and priv­i­lege of liv­ing on the wa­ter and what comes with that. “Friends of the Parks cer­tainly wants to be sen­si­tive to peo­ple’s im­me­di­ate pain, but we also hope that this is an op­por­tu­nity to en­gage peo­ple about what cli­mate change might mean in the long term and what we might want to do for long-term plan­ning for that space,” she said.

Bu­caro said the Army Corps’ mis­sion has al­ways been to ad­dress pub­lic in­fras­truc­ture and fed­eral funds can only be spent on pub­lic prop­erty. If res­i­dents want to place ma­te­rial be­low the or­di­nary high-wa­ter mark, it re­quires a per­mit from the corps. But there will be ex­pe­dited per­mit­ting for af­fected res­i­dents.

But some res­i­dents worry time is run­ning out.

At Richard Carthew’s Rogers Park condo, sand­bag bar­ri­ers and a fence were wiped out by last week­end’s storm. Waves crashed over the re­tain­ing wall, washed up on to the ter­race and filled the garage, soak­ing mul­ti­ple cars.

“The drive­way acted like a gi­ant bath­tub,” he said.

Carthew said there’s an irony to pri­vate prop­erty own­ers hav­ing to work through the Army Corps if they want to place some­thing in the wa­ter. “They have the au­thor­ity to con­trol the wa­ter, even if it’s pri­vately owned, but they’re no longer tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for pro­tec­tion of that shore­line,” he said.

The build­ing’s man­age­ment is now in talks with en­gi­neer­ing firms to find a so­lu­tion, Carthew said, but the build­ing’s prox­im­ity to a pub­lic beach — which they can’t touch — poses a chal­lenge. Carthew wor­ried any po­ten­tial per­mits could get held up with red tape.

But his larger fear came true last week­end — “That we’re go­ing to have one heck of a bad storm and it’s go­ing to cause great dam­age. And, re­ally, there’s very lit­tle we can do about it.”


A per­son steps over a bro­ken sec­tion of the Lake­front Trail south of Fuller­ton Av­enue on Jan. 14, fol­low­ing last week­end’s storm.


Long­time res­i­dents of a South Shore Drive condo near 75th Street, Char­lotte Mitchell and John Hayes have seen Lake Michi­gan ad­vance.


An aerial view shows a dam­aged Lake­front Trail at South Lake Shore Drive and East Hyde Park Blvd in Chicago last week.


City worker Alonzo Owens takes pic­tures of waves crash­ing on East 73rd Street on Jan. 11.


Frank McCoy sets up a pump to start emp­ty­ing lake wa­ters from a flooded park­ing garage in Rogers Park on Jan. 12.

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