Some Chicago beaches return after high lake levels

Three years after near-record lake levels decimated parts of Chicago’s shoreline, some beaches are making a comeback.

Robin Mattheus, a coastal geologist with the Illinois State Geological Survey, said that after the Chicago Park District closed some beaches due to severe erosion, the establishment of dune fields to stabilize the sand and encourage plant growth it allowed beaches like Rainbow and 63rd Street to stabilize.

“Those were the areas that took the brunt of the impact of lake level rise,” Mattheus said. “Actually we are seeing in our measurements, our sonar, our drone data, that the beaches are recovering; they are reforming It seems that they are doing it so fast in the areas that suffered the most destruction.”

Sean Black lives near 63rd Street and has been going to the beach for years. He said he enjoys the weather, the music of a trio of old men playing bongos and “the whole vibe of the lake.”

Cameron, 6, and Addy, 5, of Chicago, play in the sand at 57th Street Beach, June 7, 2023.
A tractor prepares sand at Montrose Beach on Thursday morning, June 8, 2023.

“It looks like they are trying to clean up the beach a bit more, which is important. The more they keep it clean, the more attractive it is,” Black said. “Maintenance is important.”

However, the outlook for some beaches is not clear. For the stretch between Fullerton and North avenues, where large sandbags line the shoreline to mitigate wave action, city officials have not said when the barriers will be removed.

“The trap bags are a temporary measure,” said Heather Gleason, director of planning and development for the Park District. “The Chicago Park District will continue to work closely with the Army Corps of Engineers, exploring potential sustainable and cost-effective solutions, given current coastal conditions.”

Cathy Breitenbach, director of natural and cultural resources for the Park District, said historically fluctuating lake levels have been cyclical, and maintenance needs and recreational uses have changed depending on these levels.

“Ten years ago, we were at record low lake levels and we were worried about the dredging of ports,” Breitenbach said. “Twenty-five years ago, Montrose Dog Beach was a boat ramp.”

Historically, lake levels have risen and fallen for decades. Now, with climate change bringing more precipitation and harsher weather to the Midwest, those cycles are occurring over a shorter period of time, scientists say. Lake Michigan hit a record low in 2013. In 3 1/2 years, the lake rose 4 feet. By 2020, he had climbed over 6 feet, just shy of the record.

Severe storms that year destroyed several beaches on the north side. The city filled Howard, Juneway and Rogers beaches with rocks after roads were damaged and threatened.

Since 2020, water levels have dropped 2 ½ feet.

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The city expects huge crowds to descend on the 22 beaches along its 26-mile coastline now that beach season is underway. But the impact of bathers tends to be pretty minimal in terms of erosion, Mattheus said.

Maintaining the natural environment of the beaches is an effective way to control erosion, according to Mattheus. Techniques like controlled burns, like one recently done at Rainbow Beach by the Park District, reduce weeds and prevent invasive species so natural habitat can return.

The grasses also tend to help hold the litter in place. Now that lake levels have dropped, Mattheus said, the vegetation that was destroyed can naturally rebound.

Dune grasses grow on 63rd Street Beach, June 7, 2023.

“With the lower levels of the lake, the wave energy can’t get as high on the beach face and that’s where we’re starting to see the sand build up again,” he said. “If you have vegetation, it will trap more sand and we will see some really good changes.”

Just before dawn, crews from the Park District clean Chicago’s beaches every day. Tractors pulling conditioning machines collect trash in combination with teams of people picking up trash by hand during the busier summer months, according to Breitenbach.

Clearing the sand also helps slow erosion, Mattheus said, as it moves the sand, creating additional stability.

Ezra Maille is a self-employed worker.