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Where's the Beach? Fargo Beach All But Gone as Lake Rises

By Benjamin Woodard | August 1, 2014 5:31am
 The beach at Fargo Avenue has slowly been swallowed up as lake levels rise.
Fargo Beach Disappears
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ROGERS PARK — The Chicago Park District sign at the end of Fargo Avenue says, "Welcome to Fargo Beach."

But there's one problem with the greeting: There's not much of a beach left as the lake's water creeps to its highest levels in 15 years.

"There used to be a beach. There used to be a lot more," said Jan Ponio, soaking up the sun on a patch of sand that was the only part of the beach not yet submerged by Lake Michigan.

Ben Woodard reveals if Fargo Beach will ever come back again:

She said she's been coming to Fargo Beach, her favorite beach, for the last nine years.

Now, while the secluded beach slowly disappears, she said, "I don't know what I'll do."

Fargo Avenue Beach, acquired by the Park District in 1959, has long been a secret, well-protected getaway for residents dwelling in the multiunit buildings that abut the lakefront.

From a garden and patio, steep concrete steps descend to a seawall, where lake water splashes over boulders. In previous years, the beach extended about a block south, all the way to Jarvis beach.

But this year, even on calm weather days, the beach is about a quarter of that. Beachgoers can access what's left of the beach by walking south along the wall and descending to the sand.

And on a windy day last week, the only way to the tiny patch of dry sand was by wading through ankle-deep water.

Park District officials didn't respond to a request for comment.

But Keith Kompoltowicz, the chief hydrologist with the Army Corp of Engineers in Detroit, said the Great Lakes have been rising as a whole after the water hit record low levels early last year.

"We’ve seen very much higher water levels over the past two years," he said, "due to very wet conditions in spring 2013 and the brutal winter of 2013-14. That snow and rain caused the water to rise."

And Kompoltowicz said — unfortunately for Fargo Beach lovers — the water likely will continue its ascension, possibly reaching a level not seen in 15 years, if early forecasts hold true.

The mean water level measured for July, at 578.94 feet, still remains below the all-time average lake level of 579.30 feet, calculated since record-keeping began in 1918, but more than a foot higher than at the same time last year.

"It’s probably safe to say we’re going to remain above the levels of a year ago over the next six months," he said. "Water levels should remain higher."

The highest levels ever recorded in Lake Michigan was 582.35 feet, reached in October 1986.

Resident Tom Boyle remembers those years — when Fargo Beach didn't even exist at all.

"In the '80s, the water came all the way up to the wall," he said.

But then the water slowly receded, revealing the beach most people in the neighborhood are familiar with now.

"The water was low enough that I could walk the dog all the way ... to Pratt. Now you can't do that," he said. "I miss it; all of the people do."

Ald. Joe Moore (49th) also noticed the shrinking beach at Fargo this summer.

He said he had considered proposing to rename Fargo Beach after the late Marion Mahony Griffin, who helped design the Australian capital more than a century ago and lived out the final years of her life in Rogers Park.

"I ran this idea past some neighbors in the immediate vicinity of Fargo Beach and they pointed out that Fargo Beach has practically disappeared in the last two years due to rising lake levels," he said in an email to constituents.

So, instead, he proposed to rename Jarvis Beach in Griffin's honor.

But Jarvis, too, is not what it used to be.

Only a small peninsula — sometimes patrolled by a Park District lifeguard — connects the beach with the pile of breakwater rocks meant to keep the crashing waves at bay.

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