After years of erosion at Rogers Park beaches brought in by rising water levels, crews began a “multi-million dollar” project this week to preserve what’s left of the Lake Michigan shoreline on Chicago’s North Side.
The Chicago Park District and the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) began working Monday on the five-week emergency stabilization and shore protection project at Chicago’s northernmost Juneway Beach — located about two miles from Loyola’s Lake Shore Campus — according to a press release from CDOT.
Maria Hadden, 49th Ward alderwoman, said the shoreline protection work will also be done at the neighboring Howard and Rogers Beach Parks.
Crews will install a several-hundred foot wall made of armor boulders at the beaches, Hadden said. The boulders are similar to those on the lakefront near Loyola’s Lake Shore Campus and are meant to break waves and “hold up” land.
Water has engulfed what used to be sandy beaches throughout Rogers Park. Concrete walls installed in attempts to combat the powerful waves and preserve the shoreline have crumbled into the water.
Patrick Bray, a spokesperson for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — a federal agency that primarily oversees and maintains infrastructure in American waterways — said it controls who can get a permit to do maintenance along the lake. Army Corps officials have been assessing the northern beaches the past few months but the permit process was expedited after intense storms that caused further damage Oct. 31 and Nov. 11.
In 2013, Lake Michigan’s water levels were the lowest on record at 576 feet, The Phoenix reported. Last month, lake levels averaged at about 581 feet, according to data from the Army Corps. To raise the water level six-feet, approximately 2.3 trillion gallons of water is required.
Regional climate variations influence the supply of water to each of the Great Lakes, according to the Army Corps. Water levels can change depending on amounts of precipitation, runoff and evaporation.
Bray said it’s hard to attribute the rising water levels to climate change because water level data only goes back about 100 years. He said through the years, water levels have fluctuated from extreme highs to extreme lows.
However, the Great Lakes region has seen increases in temperature more drastic than other parts of the United States, according to a report from the Environmental Law and Policy Center. Between 1901-1960 and 1985-2016, the Great Lakes basin warmed 1.6 degrees in average annual temperature.
A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, which increases the frequency and intensity of snow and rain storms, the report said.
Terry Brennan, a retired computer programmer who lives a few blocks from the beaches, said he’s been shocked by how much the lake has destroyed the shoreline and park space.
“The power of the water is so huge, and we don’t know what is going to happen next because of the weather,” Brennan said. “[City officials are] doing what they can.”
Hadden said the project needs to be done to keep people safe and preserve what’s left of the beaches and surrounding parks.
The crumbling shorelines are a safety concern because if nothing is done to stop the damage, the erosion will keep moving back, which could destroy infrastructure such as roads, Bray said.
The parks will be closed for the project, Hadden said. During the process, some fencing, playground equipment and trees could be temporarily removed, but she said the Park District has committed to restoring the parks this spring after work is complete.
“We’ve been working pretty closely with parks to ensure that our medium- and long-term plans are to make sure we can restore these beaches as they’re such a vital part of our community,” Hadden said.
Hadden said she’s received mixed opinions on the project from residents of the area, with some concerned about how the work will affect the beaches and surrounding parks going forward.
“This is traumatic … the massive erosion that we’ve seen, the dangerous situation that it’s created,” Hadden said. “I’ve told people I recognize that it’s traumatic and it’s a loss of some very cherished public space [in a short period of time] and so I understand people being upset.”
Aashish Mewada, an accountant and resident of Rogers Park, said while people may be upset to temporarily lose park space, doing nothing to stop the erosion is a worse alternative.
“You have to make the short term sacrifice to have longevity with our public spaces on the shoreline,” Mewada said.
Theresa Markham, a data specialist at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Rogers Park resident, said she supports the project and mentioned how the boulders on Loyola’s Lake Shore Campus have been effective. She said the beaches in north Rogers Park could “use the assurance” Loyola’s campus has from the boulders.
“I’m sorry that people are losing their beaches, of course we want our beaches, but unless we’re going to put in some native plants and really do the work to make it a sustainable shoreline, this is probably our best bet,” Markham said. “I hope that people will be patient and appreciate that the alderperson is trying to do the best thing for us.”
Hadden said it will take several years to restore the beaches.
“We are ultimately at the mercy of Mother Nature and Lake Michigan when it comes to that,” she said.
The Park District didn’t comment and directed The Phoenix to CDOT.