Plans To Protect Chicago’s Shoreline, Block Asian Carp From The Great Lakes Receive Millions In Federal Funding

DOWNTOWN — Projects to protect Chicago’s “fragile” lakefront from the impacts of climate change and invasive species will receive millions of dollars in federal funding.

The US Army Corps of Engineers’ General Reevaluation Report — an upcoming study of lakefront protection needs across Chicago — is among the projects supported by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in November. Illinois will receive $17 billion of the $1.3 trillion package.

The study will receive $1.5 million from the federal government as officials work to protect the shoreline from erosion and flooding amid an unpredictable climate.

The shoreline study “may be the most important investment for this city and for this area, in terms of making sure that we are prepared for what is coming inevitably,” Sen. Dick Durbin said during a news conference Thursday at the Shedd Aquarium.

The Army Corps will review shoreline needs from suburban Wilmette to the Indiana border, though the agency will take a closer look at several priority areas, a project manager said last summer.

The priority areas include Juneway Beach; Promontory Point; 67th to 73rd streets, including La Rabida Children’s Hospital; and the South Water Purification Plant at Rainbow Beach.

With another $1.5 million already pledged by the city, the study is now fully funded, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said.

“Lake Michigan is a crucial and iconic part of Chicago,” Lightfoot said. “We not only rely upon it for our clean water, but its beautiful shoreline draws residents and visitors alike to our city, making it vital to our tourism industry and economy as a whole. It is the thing that sets us apart from every other city in the country.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Large waves over Lake Michigan crash at Montrose Beach on March 18, 2021.

In recent years, officials and residents have repeatedly said reinforcing Chicago’s lakefront is a priority. High lake levels and severe storms have eroded the existing shoreline and barriers while flooding lakefront communities.

“This devastation is simply … a forewarning of what’s to come without swift [and] determining action,” said Rep. Bobby Rush. “We do not have the luxury of waiting anymore. It is upon us now.”

Rush has previously accused officials of focusing their lakefront protection efforts “north of Roosevelt Road.”

Of the 23 Chicago “shoreline protection projects” funded by Congress in 1996, the only two yet unfinished — at Promontory Point and Morgan Shoal — are on the South Side. Officials gave updates on the two projects Thursday.

Any shoreline upgrades at the “iconic” Promontory Point, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, must be completed with the state’s Historic Preservation Officer’s guidance, Lightfoot said.

The Hyde Park-area residents who have demanded the city preserve and rehabilitate the Point’s historical limestone barriers — not replace them with concrete — will also be involved, she said.

“They’re gonna have one or two opinions about what happens at Promontory Point,” Lightfoot said.

Rep. Robin Kelly, who was also on hand for Thursday’s news conference, supports a “true preservation approach” to repairing the Point’s limestone barriers, according to the Hyde Park Herald.

Construction at Promontory Point won’t begin until the project at Morgan Shoal, from 45th to 51st streets, is completed, according to the city’s capital plan. That could be years from now, as the agencies won’t seek construction bids for the shoal project until late this year.

The city will spend $71.7 million over the next five years on the Morgan Shoal project, which is set to add 7 acres of parkland as a buffer between the lake and the adjacent community. Public meetings about the shoal project will be held this summer, Lightfoot said.

“We are deeply committed to both [the Promontory Point and Morgan Shoal] projects in the near future, as the shoreline segments they cover are two of the most complex in the entire shoreline project,” Lightfoot said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The Martin family from Hyde Park enjoy the warm weather and play in the waves lapping the shore at Promontory Point in Hyde Park on April 26, 2021.
Credit: Chicago Park District
A rendering from the Morgan Shoal Framework Plan, completed in 2015 to guide the shoreline protection project from 45th to 51st streets.

Alongside the government’s lakefront efforts, South Shore residents have spent nearly two years advocating for improvements through the South Side Lakefront Erosion Task Force.

Neighbors have also invested in private engineering studies, water pumps and barriers to preserve their homes.

Last month, they called on officials to consider using federal infrastructure funding to build breakwaters near 73rd Street and repair and reinforce the street and shoreline.

The Army Corps did not commit to adding the 73rd Street proposal to its list of shoreline study priority areas Thursday.

“If there’s opportunities to take a look at other areas, those will be explored if we can get to that point,” Army Corps deputy district engineer Steve Fischer said.

Rush urged the Army Corps to “make sure that they present to the citizens of this city what I call ‘south lakefront equity.'”

South Sides “must be included more vigorously, more pointedly and more financially in the efforts to improve our beloved lakefront,” he said.

Credit: South Side Lakefront Erosion Task Force
Lake Michigan floods the east end of 73rd Street during a storm Oct. 25.

Much like on the South Side, North Side homes and beaches have been impacted by high lake levels and extreme weather, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-9th) said.

Neighbors are concerned waves have “undermined” their condo buildings’ foundations, while the Juneway, Rogers and Howard Street beaches have been eroded, she said.

As recent storms have brought Lake Michigan into residential areas — including some areas several blocks from the lakefront — the government is investing in “long-term solutions” to flooding and erosion, not just “urgent” repairs, Lightfoot said.

“Residents blocks away from the lake [have] had flooding in their basement,” Lightfoot said. “…If you look at the census, where we have grown as a city is along our lakeshore. So, all the more reason why we need to make sure that we protect this incredibly valuable asset.”

Credit: Joe Ward/Block Club Chicago
Crews work to protect the shoreline near Howard Beach in Rogers Park in December 2019.

The federal funding will also direct $225.8 million to upgrade the Brandon Road Lock and Dam near Joliet, “the last best line of defense against the invasion of the Asian carp,” Rep. Bill Foster said.

With the funding, the Army Corps will install an electric barrier, underwater sound barriers, an air bubble curtain and a flushing lock to block Asian carp and other aquatic invasive species from entering the Great Lakes.

“It’s hard to appreciate this threat unless you see it up close,” Foster said. “Seeing an entire river or an entire lake full of this invasive species just makes you sick to your stomach. I guarantee we do not want these in every tributary in the Great Lakes basin.”

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