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Chicago Beaches Could Shrink This Spring, Summer Due To High Water Levels

By Kelly Bauer | May 24, 2017 8:31am | Updated on May 30, 2017 11:36am
 Lake Michigan's rising water level means some beaches could feel a bit smaller this summer.
Lake Michigan's rising water level means some beaches could feel a bit smaller this summer.
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Courtesy Chicago Park District

DOWNTOWN — The city's beaches could feel a bit more crowded this summer — but it's not because the beach is getting more popular.

It's because some beaches could be getting smaller.

Lake Michigan's water level is higher than it has been in years past, which means the lake is encroaching on some beaches. The water level is at 580 feet above sea level, a full foot above the average of 579 feet for May, said Keith Kompoltowicz, who keeps track of water levels in the Great Lakes for the Army Corps of Engineers.

An even starker comparison: The lake's water level was at its lowest-ever recorded point in January 2013, when it sat at just 576.02 feet. That means the water level is about 4 feet higher than it was just four years ago, Kompoltowicz said.

Last year, when the water level was higher than normal but lower than it is now, beaches like 12th Street Beach, Montrose and Thorndale were noticeably smaller or partially under water.

The Chicago Park District, which manages the city's beaches, shouldn't be impacted by the rising lake levels, a spokeswoman said, and there haven't been comments or questions about the change.

But Kompoltowicz noted that a quickly rising water level between 2013-2014 caused "very noticeable changes" around Lake Michigan.

"Beaches were disappearing and water encroaching on folks' property lines and creating some issues with erosion as waves were crashing closer and closer to folks' homes and infrastructure," Kompoltowicz said.

Beaches could appear smaller this season due to the rising lake level, Kompoltowicz said, but how much they change could vary widely.

"Change in what the shoreline looks like is a very localized thing," he said. "How much of a change you notice will differ. [It] depends on the topography of the area in question."

And this year's water level — which the Army Corps of Engineers is predicting will remain higher than average over the summer, when water levels tend to peak — isn't uncharted territory for Chicago and other cities around Lake Michigan. The record high for the lake was set in 1986, when the water level was about 2 feet higher than it is now.

Rainfall plays a large role in the lake's water level, said AccuWeather meteorologist John Gresiak, and the areas around Lake Michigan have seen a lot more rain and snow than is usual this spring. Chicago had nearly double the amount of precipitation it typically gets this March (up to 4 inches from an average of 2.5) and April (up to 6.43 inches from an average of 3.38).

Even other spots around Lake Michigan — including parts of Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana — have had 2 or 3 inches more precipitation than usual, Gresiak said.

"That's the case with several of the Great Lakes," Gresiak said of the rising water level. They're "running very high this year."