Saving Chicago’s shrinking beaches with coastal vegetation and dunes

Kathy Osterman Beach on Chicago’s North Side.
Kathy Osterman Beach on Chicago’s North Side.

Photo by Astry Rodriguez

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Climate, Government & Military, Infrastructure, Storyfest 2024, Water

Waves crash against the concrete sea wall hugging the shoreline along Chicago’s Calumet Park. Sections of the gray boundary between land and lake are crumbling against the constant pressure of the elements.

With over 25 miles of glistening blue water, Chicago’s lakeshore, composed of Lake Michigan beaches, faces a significant threat. Erosion is the shrinking of a shoreline that is slowly worn away by waves, wind, currents and other natural factors, and it is affecting the city’s shoreline at an exacerbated rate due to climate change. 

Chicago beaches are narrowing at a rate of nearly 100 ft. per year along parts of the coastline, meaning less space for recreation and the loss of habitats for shorebirds and other beach animals.

“In a warming climate, there’s more intense precipitation events, which also tend to facilitate higher rates of erosion,” Max Berkelhammer, a climate and atmospheric scientist and professor at University of Illinois at Chicago, said. “The primary cause is coastal management. Like building right along coastlines and not maintaining basically wetlands or or natural shore ecosystems that absorb the action of the lake. So I think it’s primarily a human or urban development issue.”

Berkehammer said the primary action in question is the rising lake levels exposing more of the sand to water, wind and the increase in runoff — when it rains faster than the sand or soil can absorb the water and it runs off a surface, increasing the rate of erosion.

Erosion causes damage to infrastructure (roads, buildings and parking lots) and natural habitats. It can also threaten public health by increasing the risk of algal blooms, quick growing areas of algae that can produce harmful toxins. 

Edgewater Environmental Coalition (EEC) — a nonprofit organization focused on action, advocacy and education for environmental stewardship — has a Shoreline Protection Program aimed at restoring the natural ecosystems of the lakeshore using nature-based solutions. The organization has used successful strategies of green infrastructure like building dunes, planting native plants and removing invasive ones to mitigate erosion. EEC, in conjunction with the Loyola University Student Environmentalist Alliance, has planted 300 native grasses and 1,500 marram grass stolons that act as anchors that strengthen dunes across the shore.

A dune at Kathy Osterman Beach with naturally growing and EEC-planted Marram Grass. (Astry Rodriguez)
The three acres of native dune habitat at Kathy Osterman Beach. (Astry Rodriguez) 

Natural solutions can often be more cost effective, visually in tune with the natural landscape and equally as durable as traditional gray infrastructure like the concrete ground and walls that make up most of the Chicago shoreline, according to EEC Advisory Board member John Laswick. He said the main goal of the organization is to reestablish dunes, which are nature’s original protection system.

“What we do is go out every last Sunday of the month in the summertime and pull out invasive plants, pick up trash, plant new grasses to extend the dune plantings because if you don’t have the sand anchored with grasses and trees, then it’s just gonna blow away or wash away,” Laswick said.

While the organization focuses on dunes and native plants, they also promote other natural resources to combat erosion.

Natural Solutions to Erosion

  1. Beach nourishment and restoration: Replenishing eroded beaches with sediment like sand to protect against wave energy.
  2. Dune restoration and protection: Stabilizing dunes with plants and shrubs to help them last longer and protect the land against erosion.
  3. Natural shorelines: Adding vegetation, oyster reefs and aquatic vegetation to trap sediment and diminish wave energy effects.
  4. Green infrastructure: Adding green infrastructure in urban areas to manage stormwater runoff, like permeable pavement to retain and filter stormwater.
  5. Coastal vegetation management: Adding and preserving native grasses, shrubs, and trees to anchor sediment.
  6. Integrated Coastal Zone Management: Using an integrated approach to coastal management by understanding the interaction of land, water and human activities. 

Friends of the Parks (FOTP), which provided the seed grant that enables EEC’s stewardship services along the shore, is a nonprofit organization focused on protecting Chicago’s lakefront and ensuring an equitable, ecological park system. They have enacted policy changes — such as partnering with the state and Chicago Park District to implement the Illinois Clean Harbors program — and educate local residents on park stewardship. 

Gin Kilgore, Interim Executive Director of FOTP, is a former resident of Hyde Park, a South Side neighborhood a few miles from the lakeshore. She says she grew up observing the power of Lake Michigan to batter the shoreline during big storms, which she notes are more frequent and intense in recent years due to climate change. During long runs along the lakefront she has seen the limitations of “gray infrastructure” to protect against erosion, such as crumbling sidewalks in front of the Calumet Beach Fieldhouse.

The blocked off area at Kathy Osterman Beach recovering from high lake levels. (Astry Rodriguez)

FOTP is closely monitoring the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ General Reevaluation Report (GRR), a study that will evaluate the risk of flooding, erosion and storm damage along Lake Michigan’s coast in areas of Chicago. The study, cost-shared with the City of Chicago and the Chicago Park District, is set to be completed in 2025, at which time solutions will be shared to combat these issues.

According to Kilgore, the Corps’ mandate is to use the lowest-cost solutions, prioritizing the highest property values. 

“Do we only measure cost in terms of how much it costs to put down the concrete? Okay, maybe that’s cheap. But, what’s the cost of compromising habitats, or what’s the cost of human access to the lake?” Kilgore said. 

FOTP also sees the study as an opportunity to complete Chicago’s lakefront parks and paths system which currently falls short two miles at both the north and south ends, due in part to private properties that hug the shoreline, Kilgore said. Creating a buffer between the buildings and water’s edge provides flood protection and allows for public use.

EEC also wants to ensure that the report’s proposed solutions are nature-based, and are raising awareness of their work to influence the Army Corps’ approach.

“A huge part of what is physically Chicago and culturally Chicago is this lakefront and these parks and the Lakeshore drive, and these decisions [about the shore] are going to have an effect for decades,” Laswick said. “We got to get started on the right path.”

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