By Morgan Greene Chicago Tribune
A gull looked out from a perch and surveyed Lake Michigan’s southern shore. With a turn of its head, the bird clocked visitors in search of beach glass, a boy to the right rolling down the dunes and a brave spring swimmer fully submerged. A long sweep of sand under a bright sky called out to the Memorial Day crowd.
Lake Michigan is easing up — after swallowing shorelines, flooding coasts and breaking records — and just in time for beach season.ADVERTISING
Levels have lowered from record highs as part of an overall Great Lakes downswing. The receding water has been welcomed by some beach towns and lakefront parks that weathered destruction in recent years. A group of Great Lakes officials estimated at least $500 million of damage in cities last year.
The shift doesn’t mean shoreline communities are in the clear. Many are still working to preserve what’s left of disappearing bluffs, repair crumbling paths or get ahead of the next rise.
But, for some beachgoers, a walk along a sandy shore is something.
On a recent afternoon, after the watchful seagull flew away, Holly Hume, of Crown Point, walked along West Beach, part of Indiana Dunes National Park, with a friendly Maltese-Yorkie mix.
“The water, the sounds of the waves, it is therapeutic,” Hume said. “It makes you connect with something that’s bigger than daily life.”
Most of the Great Lakes region saw drier conditions toward the end of 2020 through this year, said Deanna Apps, a physical scientist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Detroit District.
In April, Lake Michigan was down 14 inches from the previous year but still nearly 2 feet above the long-term average. The seasonal rise typically begins in spring and peaks in summer, but Lake Michigan’s monthly mean water level for April held relatively steady, Apps said. Lake Michigan’s projected levels for the next six months also remain above average.
“We’re kind of in the middle there,” Apps said. “We’re about a foot and a half above average, and a foot and a half below record highs, roughly.”
Changes in water level are driven by precipitation, runoff and evaporation. Lake Michigan topped the long-term average in 2014 and last year set a string of monthly records, hovering near the 1986 record high. Highs and lows have come and gone throughout the historical record, and climate change may bring increasing variability between the swings. But it’s still too early to say if the lower trend will continue.
“The Great Lakes system, being how large it is, it takes time to really transition out of record highs or record lows,” Apps said. “You really need persistent conditions to last over several months to even years. So this drier period is a start, definitely, but we won’t know for several months potentially if this is really the beginning of another transition period.
“There is still a potential for impacts along the shoreline — erosion, flooding — if we get that persistent wind and increased wave action,” she added. “So just continue to be prepared and stay vigilant if you’re along the shoreline.”
About 200 miles north of Indiana Dunes, at Orchard Beach State Park, an entire pavilion bordering the lake and weighing hundreds of tons is in a new location for the summer as part of a “controlled retreat.”
The pavilion, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, was moved about a quarter of a mile in December to contend with an encroaching Lake Michigan. Its new location makes it more accessible; plans for a playground are taking off.
“It traveled without a hitch,” said Doug Barry, unit supervisor at the park. “We’ve got a nice view of the lake. Not as nice, of course, because you’re not right on the edge almost falling in.”
There’s hope the building, a popular spot for weddings, should be safe for at least a few hundred years, versus the decades it may have survived with stone protections, Barry said.
“It all depends on Mother Nature, really,” he said. “And climate change.”
Barry said he’s been at the park for a few years, and some areas of the bank have lost more than 20 feet. That’s unusual, he said, because an average 6-inch loss per year was expected. Stone revetments are being placed to protect stairs that are still struggling and infrastructure including the wastewater system.
“The water’s gone down and we’re so grateful,” Barry said. “Except for big storms, I don’t think the water is hitting the toe of our bluff anymore.”
But it will likely take time for the slope to stabilize, he said, and public access to the beach isn’t likely anytime in the immediate future.
“Dramatic changes have happened in the last few years with this high water,” Barry said. “Hopefully the water continues to go down and we’ll have a beach again at Orchard Beach State Park.”
Farther south in New Buffalo, visitors walked along their beach — a mosaic of pebbles and neon water reflecting the sunset.
David Gatz spoke above the whoosh of waves and pointed out a sign near a stretch of lakefront property, now dozens of feet away from the water, that was close to the shoreline last year.
“It’s pretty remarkable,” said Gatz. “There is a natural cycle — the dunes, the beaches. Just because we’ve put a house there means we can do whatever we want? Eh, I don’t know.”
Gatz moved to the town with his wife, Diane Williams, who grew up in the area and as a kid took long walks along a connected shoreline.
“We’re taking advantage of the beautiful day on the lake,” Williams said.
And the quiet before Memorial Day crowds arrive. “The number of people,” Gatz said. “It’s unbelievable.”
The couple said the town has changed throughout the years. Houses have gone up along the lakefront. Rising costs have pushed some locals farther out, or encouraged them to sell. Less than half of the homes on their block are year-round residents.
“We’re getting a Starbucks,” Williams joked.
Gearing up for crowds
Along the Ogden Dunes shore, between a sand bucket and scattered rocks larger than beach balls, Briana Lambooy played with her sons on a sunny day. A bit west, a wooden walkway was still on its side.
“I think more people will come down now because there is more space,” Lambooy said. “This is what it’s all about. Summers in Ogden Dunes at the beach.”
The rocks placed along the beach last year don’t help the view, said Lambooy, who grew up in Ogden Dunes, but she’s happy to have a beach. Even the eastern stretch bordering the town started to come back last year, she said.
“And now you can almost walk all the way down,” Lambooy said. “Which you couldn’t do.”
Indiana Dunes, one of the country’s newest national parks, saw nearly 2.3 million visitors last year, a record-setting number, according to National Park Service data. The park is anticipating another wave. There’s a parking hotline up and running to counter congestion, and park staff is gearing up for summer crowds, said Superintendent Paul Labovitz.
“We call it the Illinois invasion,” Labovitz said.
Quieter weekdays are often a safer bet, but this summer, there’s more beach to meet the demand.
On a recent afternoon, two first-time visitors walked past the Portage pavilion and down below a sidewalk hanging at the edge of a crumbling dune to a spot along the beach that, not too long ago, was water. They placed their hands into Lake Michigan for the first time.
“With the lake levels going down, on a calm day there’s triple the amount of beach area it seems than there was last year,” Labovitz said. “Part of it is lake level and part of it is just nourishment. Even the Portage Lakefront, we were there today and there’s a ton of beach there compared to last year.”
At the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk, where a dune was breached and an accessible ramp was in water, boulders are being placed along the shore after 50,000 cubic yards of sand were brought in last year. The city is covering the majority of the costs of the boulders, with the park pitching in.
Without nourishment, erosion problems may have been even worse, Labovitz said. And it makes sense to add protections now, before the lake rises again.
“When it comes back up and this is a problem, it’s not going to be any cheaper,” he said.
A modest comeback
In Chicago, where rubble mounds have replaced some North Side sand and work to stop sinkholes started up this year on the South Side, some beaches are making a modest comeback.
Montrose Beach has more space for beachgoers — and birds. The Great Lakes piping plovers Monty and Rose have made the most of their habitat addition as they watch over their newest nest at Montrose. Calumet Park Beach on the South Side, where water spilled up on to the beach house, is also shaping up — the lake is below the beach house stairs.
The north edge of the Montrose Beach Dunes protected area, where the Chicago Park District announced plans to expand the protected natural area, on April 7, 2021. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune) 1 / 10
“We’ve definitely seen, just from casually observing, an increase in beach area,” said Sarah White, a lakefront coordinator with the Chicago Park District. “That means that the beaches will be more usable this year.”
But some areas are struggling from erosion: near Fullerton on the North Side and Arthur Ashe beach on the South Side, which is gone. Calumet Park still has collapsed sidewalks blocked off.
Most of the emergency shoreline protection work from the last year is wrapping up. Officials are shifting focus to a long-term solution in the Morgan Shoal area as part of the Chicago Shoreline Protection Project, authorized by Congress more than two decades ago with costs now surpassing $500 million. The federal share of the project was completed by the Army Corps in 2014, but work is still on deck for Morgan Shoal and Promontory Point.
Along the North Shore, John Bealer, executive director of the Lake Bluff Park District, said erosion continues to be a major challenge.
The district worked with the neighboring North Shore Water Reclamation plant to improve revetments at Sunrise Beach, Bealer said, and is also placing twice the amount of usual sand on the beach for spring — the equivalent of 30 semitrailer loads.
“It’s like $16,000 worth of sand just to help get through the summer,” Bealer said.
Disintegrating concrete rubble, used for protection, has accumulated where dogs once romped and roamed, leading to a temporary designated dog beach.
“We’re addressing it, but it’s going to take a little bit of time,” Bealer said.
But following challenges from high lake levels to the pandemic, residents are eager to return to the water.
And, added White, many are glad to see closed beaches opening up again: “As long as everybody’s safe.”
Original article: chicagotribune.com