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Lake Michigan Has Risen 4 Feet Since 2013, Swallowing Up Beaches

By Joe Ward | May 9, 2016 5:47am | Updated on May 13, 2016 11:37am
 Lake Michigan has risen 4 feet since 2013. Here's what that means for Chicago's beaches.
Lake Levels Hurt Beaches
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MUSEUM CAMPUS — Linda Bonk and a friend brought their four kids to 12th Street beach late last week to take advantage of the warm weather that is settling in.

But when the group got there, Bonk said something seemed different: A large portion of the beach had been lost to the lake. The northernmost portion of the beach seemed to be almost completely lost.

"This whole area, you can't even walk over there now," Bonk of Wicker Park said of the north side of the beach. "I was wondering, 'Is it high tide?'"

Reporter Joe Ward on why the rising lake isn't cause for alarm.

As Chicagoans head back to their favorite lakefront beaches this summer, they may find them looking a bit different than in years past. That's because Lake Michigan has risen almost 4 feet since January 2013, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

"We've had a fairly significant increase in lake levels over the last three years," said Roy Deda, a project manager for the Army Corps's Chicago office.

The lake levels have risen drastically since last year. Lake Michigan is about 15 inches higher than the monthly average for this time of the year, Deda said. The lake is expected to continue to rise — by maybe 6 more inches, Deda said — before summer heat accelerates evaporation.

Water levels at 12th Street beach reach a wall before a walking path and food stand. Beach land has been lost to Lake Michigan since it has risen 4 feet since 2013. {DNAinfo/ Joe Ward]

The pavement near the Adler Planetarium is soaked with water, which regularly makes the former walkway unwalkable. [Barry Butler]

Rising lake levels have a number of effects on Chicago's lakefront. It can exacerbate problems of erosion, like at Northerly Island's new lagoon area, and it can contribute to damage like that done to lakefront walking paths.

"We've been getting some damage because of that," Deda said of lake levels.

It also changes the landscape of the city's beaches.

The loss is noticeable at a few of the city's beaches, including 12th Street beach, Montrose beach in Uptown and Thorndale beach in Edgewater.

At Montrose beach, the beachfront hasn't been lost, but a large chunk of the back of the beach is under water. The dog beach has lost space, and erosion has covered about half of the fence separating the dog beach from the regular beach.

Alexander Valintine Jr. plays in a large "lake" that covers much of Uptown's Montrose beach. His mother watches from the beachfront. {DNAinfo/Joe Ward]

Photographer Barry Butler took this photo in 2013. Now, these rocks are covered by water. [Barry Butler]

Alexander Valintine, of Pilsen, was at Montrose Beach with his wife and young son Friday. His wife treaded through feet of water to make it to the beachfront, but Alexander and his son, Alexander Jr., stayed back and played in the makeshift pond that has taken over much of the beach.

"It's [deep] enough for him," Valintine said of his son.

Lake levels have risen for a number of reasons, but experts said the Great Lakes regularly rise and fall mostly due to weather and other natural causes. A long, deep freeze of the lake, which Chicago saw repeatedly earlier this decade, slows evaporation, eventually leading to higher water levels.

Lake Michigan gets fed from Lake Superior and a number of rivers, Deda said. But precipitation and water runoff from Chicago and other cities also contribute, he said.

Lake levels don't necessarily follow a pattern, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Before levels started to rise in 2013, Lake Michigan was near record low levels, said Lauren Fry, lead forecaster at the Army Corps' Detroit office.

In 1986, Lake Michigan was reaching record high levels, said Tom Murphy, an Edgewater resident who has studied Chicago's beaches for decades.

Then water levels began to recede — so much so that a boat dock at Montrose Beach couldn't be used. So the city made it a dog beach, according to Murphy and others. 

Thorndale beach throughout the years. Notice the rock formation at the north end of the beach to see how the beachfront has changed. [DNAinfo/Joe Ward]

Thorndale Beach at 5800 N. Lake Shore Drive is another one that's been habitually resized by nature, Murphy said.

Giant rocks were installed at the beach when lake levels were high to help break up waves, he said. Eventually, the lake receded to the point where one could walk out to the rock pile.

With the lake having risen again, and after a nasty storm moved a lot of sand, the rocks are no longer accessible by beach, Murphy said.

"It's an island now," he said of the rocks.

That's what happens when a city sidles up next to a large force of nature such as Lake Michigan.

"It's a very complicated situation — it's absolutely unpredictable," Murphy said of beach configuration. "It's up to Mother Nature and whatever she decides to do."

Linze Rice contributed to this report.

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