A tale of two cities — preparing for climate change

Lee Street Beach in Evanston, Illinois

This winter, popular Lee Street Beach in Evanston, Illinois, was shrinking as Lake Michigan rose. (Anne Snabes / Northwestern University)

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Adaptation, Climate

Laura Norris’ local beach in Evanston, Illinois, is shrinking.

On leap day, the winter-scrubbed sand stood only a few feet wide on some areas of the beach. The lake sparkled under the late winter sun and snow mounded on the shoreline. Norris guessed that Lee Street Beach is about a third of its original size.

“The lakefront is the most important thing in Evanston,” she said, sitting on a bench near the beach and holding her dog with a leash. “It’s already destroyed and I can’t imagine it’s going to get any better.”

Norris predicts that Lee Street Beach will be cramped this summer with the beach space so diminished.

“It’s going to be so crowded,” she said. “I don’t know where people are going to go.”

A part of Lee Street Beach that is very small.
On leap day, the northern part of the beach had shrunk. A sheet of snow separated the sand from the water. (Anne Snabes / Northwestern University)

Lake Michigan and Lake Huron’s average lake level for February reached a record height this year, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The high level and pounding waves are eroding beaches in Chicago and other cities hugging the Great Lakes.

Some 768 miles southeast of Evanston, the area surrounding Beaufort, South Carolina, is also in a battle with shrinking beachfronts as the Atlantic Ocean rises.

Governments in Beaufort and Evanston are making plans to deal with the rising waters and other impacts of climate change. Global warming due to fossil fuel emissions is making the ocean expand and melting ice sheets and glaciers are causing sea level rise, according to NOAA. Lake Michigan’s water level will continue to rise and fall. But the maximum lake level will increase and the minimum lake level will decrease, according to Kumar Jensen, chief sustainability and resilience officer for the City of Evanston.

The two cities are experiencing Earth’s warming in different ways, as Beaufort will have to deal with Atlantic Ocean hurricanes, while Evanston will weather severe rainfall. Both areas are considering how to combat beach erosion and planning to fix strained storm water systems.

Fighting beach erosion or letting it be

Evanston’s Lee Street Beach is one of many in the Chicago area that has decreased in size. Evanston’s dog beach went under water a few years ago and has stayed there.

“Even things like our dog beach and places along the Chicago shoreline have not dealt well with just the lake levels being higher,” Jensen said. “A lot of infrastructure is hidden or has been submerged.”

Kumar Jensen
Kumar Jensen serves as chief sustainability and resilience officer for the City of Evanston. He said Lake Michigan will fluctuate to more extreme levels in the future, reaching a higher maximum and a lower minimum. (Anne Snabes / Northwestern University)

He said the lake level along the Evanston shore has about a six-foot range, but the range will become more extreme in the future. Lake levels reached record lows only a few years ago in 2013, suggesting unpredictable swings at a time when suburbs inland from the lake shore are running out of well water and would like to put a straw in the lake.

Jensen said there is “not a ton” the city can do to expand the beaches, except if it were able to move them inward — an option the city is not considering. Sidewalks and roads lie near Evanston’s beaches, offering little room for expansion. Evanston has added sand to the beaches in the past, he said, but not because of rising lake levels. The city has replaced sand that eroded, carried away by the currents to Indiana and Michigan — a process that occurs even when the water level is low. But the massive scale of submerging shore is something new.

Lara Biggs, the engineering and capital planning bureau chief for the City of Evanston, told the City Council in February that rock walls on beaches in Evanston have lost height, as rocks slip into the lake. Evanston was considering hiring a coastal engineering firm to assess the shoreline problems, she said. Kimberly Kull, division chief of emergency management and logistics for the Evanston Fire Department, said at the City Council meeting that it would take an estimated $5.78 million to fix the rock walls.

South Carolina’s beaches are shrinking quickly as well. Hunting Island State Park beach, 14 miles from Beaufort, loses about 15 feet of sand a year on average because of erosion, according to park manager J.W. Weatherford. He said wind and jet streams cause the erosion, along with storms. Hunting Island is a barrier island, which means that it sits next to the ocean and shields inland areas from storms.

Screenshot of the Beaufort area on Google Maps
Hunting Island sits on the Atlantic Ocean. (Screenshot from Google Maps)

The park adds more sand to its beach every 10 years, a process called beach renourishment. It costs the park $8 million each time. The new sand dunes prevent the island’s bathrooms and parking lots from flooding, according to Weatherford. In mid-February, the sand was almost as tall as a person, as the park was raising the beach level.

Weatherford said the park “renourishes” the beach so South Carolina residents and tourists can still access it. Beaches contribute to the local economy, as beach visitors stay at hotels, for example.

The beach at Hunting Island State Park
The beach at Hunting Island State Park in South Carolina was high in February, as new sand was pumped to shore to compensate for erosion. (Anne Snabes / Northwestern University)

“The entire county is built off of the economy of the beaches,” Weatherford said.

Preparing stormwater systems for increased rain

It’s not only beaches that are seeing the effects of climate change. Beaufort’s Mossy Oaks neighborhood occupies an 800-acre floodplain, said Billy Keyserling, the city’s mayor. Many houses have sprung up in the neighborhood over the years, and the stormwater system cannot accommodate all of the buildings.

“They never anticipated that kind of number of houses,” Keyserling said.

The city is experiencing higher tides and more frequent rain events, said Rikki Parker, the former South Coast office director and legal analyst for the Coastal Conservation League. When there is both a high tide and rain in Mossy Oaks, water floods out of the neighborhood’s drainage ditches and ponds, and enters streets and people’s homes.

“Mossy Oaks … has suffered significantly over the past four years,” she said. “We have homes that have been repeat-flooded four or five times over the past four years.”

The city is conducting an approximately $6 million engineering project in Mossy Oaks, according to Matt St. Clair, public projects and facilities director for the City of Beaufort. In the first phase of the project, the city cleaned out a canal — holding dirt, shopping carts and other items — so it could hold more water. St. Clair said in the second phase, which will start this year, they will enlarge drainage pipes and repair roads that are affected by the pipe work. They will also construct five flood gates in the neighborhood.

The flood gates will separate catch basins, which are similar to ponds. Before a high rain event, the city will lower the amount of water in the catch basins, St. Clair said. They will also close the flood gates, which will prevent tidal water from entering the basins. Only rainwater will enter the ponds.

“With the installation of the flood gates, we’ll be able to control … that tidal water trying to come in, as well as allow the water to come out,” St. Clair explained.

A flood level sign in a neighborhood of Beaufort called the Point
A flood level sign stands in the Point, a flood-prone neighborhood of Beaufort. (Anne Snabes / Northwestern University)

Jensen said Evanston also faces more extreme storms in the future. The Chicago area is confronting them already with swollen rivers flooding homes and roads. Richard B. Rood, a professor in the University of Michigan’s Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering, said winter storms in Illinois will likely be “much, much wetter,” and severe summer storms might bring “very extraordinary precipitation.”

Rood said a larger percentage of yearly rain will occur during extreme rain events. Climate change will warm the air, and warm air can store more water vapor. The ground will also warm and more of its water will evaporate. The increasing water vapor in the air will lead to rain — lots of rain.

Hal Sprague, president of Citizens’ Greener Evanston, said flooding from rain is one of the main issues that Evanston will have to face when building resilience to climate change. He said that some pipes in the city were built a century ago. Evanston has both a combined sewer system, which holds both sewage and stormwater, and a newer, separate stormwater system.

During heavy rain events, sewage and rainwater used to backup into some residents’ basements, Sprague said. In response, the city spent about $210 million updating its sewer system from 1991 to 2008, which included constructing a relief sewer system, according to the City of Evanston. The system sends excess water to a network of artificial rivers called the Deep Tunnel, constructed beneath the entire Chicago metropolitan area.

In 2018, Evanston passed a Climate Action and Resilience Plan, and one element of the plan is to improve storm water systems. Jensen said the city hired a consultant to conduct a stormwater utility analysis, in which they’ll learn where water ends up in the city during rain events and how much rain different stormwater systems can take. Evanston can then determine which infrastructure needs to be upgraded, he said.

Some cities and university campuses aim to stop using fossil fuels by mid-century, which would reduce global carbon dioxide emissions and help prevent further sea level rise. Sprague said it will be hard for Evanston to meet its goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050, however.

“If we’re going to have almost an impossible job here when we are trying our hardest to do it, and the other, you know, a million cities aren’t even trying, how are we going to solve climate change?” he asked.

He said the federal government could help solve climate change.

“If we were to have a federal government that would take it seriously, tell everybody that it’s a problem and start … changing the laws and giving incentives to people to make the behavioral change, it would go a lot faster,” he said.

Maura Turcotte contributed reporting to this article. 

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