February 11, 2020

With Chicago’s shoreline threatened, protection may have to wait as feds delay money for study

Source: Chicago Tribune


Chicago will have to wait at least another year for a study that could kick-start long-term shoreline protection.

A report reevaluating the Chicago shoreline was not funded in the Army Corps of Engineers’ 2020 work plan. With lake levels expected to remain high, boulders enveloping beaches, conditions exacerbated by climate change and residents wondering what to do as water creeps up to their homes, the study could have begun a yearslong process to guard sections of the shoreline jeopardized by erosion.

Last week, Mayor Lori Lightfoot called recent damage from high waves and flooding “climate change in action right here in our city” and requested that the Federal Emergency Management Agency declare a lakefront emergency.

The mayor’s office released a statement Tuesday that said the shoreline is “being decimated” by the lake level and recent storms, like those in January that caused $37 million in damage in Chicago and Cook County, and expressed disappointment at the study’s delay.

“While we have worked extensively over the past four months to address damage and mitigate erosion, a full study of the lakeshore is needed to fully understand and respond to the extent of its vulnerabilities,” the statement said. "While we are incredibly disappointed to learn that the Trump administration’s budget fails to provide federal funding for this effort — we will continue to work alongside the Illinois Congressional delegation and Army Corps to repair the shoreline.”

The reevaluation study would determine if sections of the shoreline not included in a large-scale project authorized more than two decades ago could receive federal funding. The study could lead to aid for struggling areas, like Rogers Park beaches hit hard by fall and winter storms, and South Side locations like La Rabida Children’s Hospital.

“The District will continue to work with the City and State to respond to high lake levels using current authorities and funding,” Patrick Bray, a spokesman for the Army Corps’ Chicago district, said in a statement. “We also look forward to working with the City and the State to develop long term solutions to shoreline challenges.”

In a December letter to the Army Corps, members of Congress requested that funds be put toward the reevaluation study.

The letter said the city had taken “substantial emergency action to reduce further damage to failed shore protection revetments and threats to life safety.”

“However, the extent of damage experienced over just a few short months has underscored the need for a more comprehensive and long-term solution,” the letter said.

Some who signed the letter expressed frustration Tuesday at the lack of funding.

“As the Great Lakes shoreline faces the most serious environmental threat in decades, the Army Corps’ work plan fails to provide funding for its protection,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who joined Lightfoot in the request to declare a federal disaster, said in a statement. “Ignoring the urgency of this threat to Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes guarantees this President will face a fight.”

Sen. Tammy Duckworth and U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky also voiced disappointment over the decision.

“We should be doing all we can to protect and restore our beautiful shorelines in Chicago and I’m disappointed that the Trump Administration shortchanges Chicago in the U.S. Army Corps’ 2020 work plan by not including critical shoreline protection funding,” Duckworth said in a statement.

Faced with Lake Michigan’s highs and lows, some shoreline protections, including revetments of stone blocks and wooden posts constructed a century ago, eventually failed. In the years leading up to the large-scale project, the Tribune reported the loss of protections could mean 20 feet of land eaten away each year.

Congress authorized the Chicago Shoreline Protection Project in 1996, and three years later the federal and local partnership began work across more than 9 miles of the lakefront.

The Army Corps finished the federal share of the project in 2014, but the Morgan Shoal stretch and Promontory Point are still incomplete. The project’s cost has risen to $536 million, but officials estimate its annual benefits at $194 million.Construction resulting from the reevaluation study could start in four to five years after the study is funded, according to David Bucaro, an outreach manager for the Army Corps.

Additionally, the Great Lakes Coastal Resiliency Study was not funded. That study would examine the entirety of the Great Lakes’ coastal areas, identifying vulnerable spots, gathering information for design parameters and looking at future variability.

The Lake Michigan water level reached a record high for the month of January, averaging about 4 inches above the previous January high set in 1987. In much of the Great Lakes region, the month saw higher than normal temperatures and wetter conditions, meaning increased runoff and less evaporation.

Levels are expected to remain high in the coming months.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a state disaster proclamation Thursday, allowing municipalities to apply for federal funding for damages from the Jan. 10 storm. And on Monday, the Chicago City Council Environmental Committee passed a resolution declaring a “climate emergency.”

By:  Morgan Greene