Standing near the lakefront in blustery winds, Ross Lehman watched as an endless legion of 8-foot waves roared toward a strip of Rogers Park condos.
Every few seconds, the surf violently crashed against large boulders and steel girders intended to fortify the shoreline, sending a spray of water up to second-story balconies.
Lehman observed from a safe distance at the end of Birchwood Avenue, where the end-of-the-street overlook was cordoned off by wooden fencing fixed with orange, plastic mesh. Peering into the sequestered area, Lehman could see waves had carved out soil that once served as the lookout’s foundation, leaving a slab of concrete hovering precariously over the void.
“It’s really scary,” said Lehman, a 63-year-old Rogers Park resident who lives a block away. “I’m starting to worry about what happens to these buildings if it keeps going. It’s just getting dangerous.”
For the second straight month, according to preliminary records, Lake Michigan has crested to its highest mark in over three decades — each time 1 inch shy of record highs set in 1986. It takes roughly 780 billion gallons of water to raise Lake Michigan 1 inch. Since 2013, the lake has risen nearly 6 feet from record lows. And in Chicago, no part of the shoreline has come away unscathed.
This year, the buoyant water has swallowed at least two Chicago beaches entirely and periodically closed others. It has swiped fishermen from piers, swimmers from beaches and submerged jetties, creating hazards for boaters. It has flooded heavily trafficked parts of lakefront bicycle and pedestrian pathways, leaving some stretches underwater and others crumbling.
But perhaps the most worrisome aspect of this summer is that these perils have occurred while the lake has remained mostly calm.
“Fall is the time of the year when wave conditions are historically the most severe on the Great Lakes,” said David Bucaro, outreach manager at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Chicago District. “We’re at a calmer period right now. There’s been some summer storms. But that October, November time period is when we really experience historically the most powerful coastal storms. That’s the conditions that we’re monitoring and are most concerned with.”
On the Far North Side, where scores of high-rise residential buildings mirror the shoreline, conditions appear to be among the most precarious.
Condo associations and building owners have applied for permits to build or reinforce shoreline protections, according to Bucaro. Some of these buildings endured severe flooding during the all-time record high in 1986. There’s a possibility that lake levels could continue to rise and potentially break records in August and September, according to forecasts.
Meanwhile, the Chicago Park District has implemented an indefinite swim ban at Juneway Terrace and Fargo beaches in Rogers Park. A newly erected chain-link fence around Rogers Park Beach has occasionally been padlocked, barring entry when tall waves are stirred by strong winds.
Residents say the generally bustling lakefront there has become lonely as its greatest attraction — the beaches — have greatly diminished or disappeared.
“You don’t know if (a beach or park) is going to be completely blocked off or if there’s going to be whole slabs of concrete falling into the water,” Lehman, the Rogers Park resident, said. “You actually don’t even know if it looks as perilous as it is. I think there are residents here who are going to do what they’ve always done. But it’s probably not safe anymore.”
While swimmers are supposed to adhere to the color-coded flags at beaches — red indicating a swim ban, yellow cautioning potentially hazardous and green for no restrictions — that doesn’t always occur. On July 2, lifeguards pulled the body of a 56-year-old man from the water in the 7700 block of North Eastlake Terrace. The two closest beaches, Juneway and Rogers Park, were both closed due to high water levels.
On a recent weekday morning, Lynn Maynard scoured 12th Street Beach on Northerly Island, collecting pieces of smooth beach glass. But the small patch of sand she combed through was but a sliver of the crescent-shaped beach that she has frequented for 19 years.
Today, the remnants of 12th Street Beach are split into two pieces. And the stairways that led visitors to the center of the beach plunge directly into Lake Michigan.
Staring into the shallow water where there once was a beach, it’s apparent that much of the sand has now been washed away.
“I think it’ll eventually come back down and we’ll get part of the beach back, but it’ll never be the same,” Maynard said.
“It’s sad, but it’s Mother Nature,” she continued. “It’s not much you can do but hope the water recedes and hope the city of Chicago throws some more sand back out there to rebuild some of the beaches.”
The Park District hasn’t purchased sand to replenish its beaches in at least a decade, according to spokeswoman Michele Lemons, and adding new sand during this period of resurgent lake levels “is not an effective solution” as officials believe the investment could be erased by powerful waves.
But experts say inaction has consequences too.
The more beach sand that drifts into deep waters, the deeper the lake bed becomes, which, in turn, allows taller waves to crash ashore and increases erosion.
Sandy beaches typically slope down to the water’s edge, allowing water to naturally drain to the lake. But sand-starved beaches can become flat and allow pools of standing water to form, according to Ethan Theuerkauf, a coastal geologist with the Illinois State Geological Survey. This stagnant water has been known to attract shorebirds that pollute it with their feces, presenting sanitary issues.
“These pockets can fill with water either from waves, rain or groundwater,” Theuerkauf said. “If the water is stagnant then they can harbor bacteria, such as E. coli.”
In the aftermath of historic rainfall and recent wave action, floodwaters occupied so much of Montrose Beach that it resembled a lagoon. On a recent weekday afternoon, David Potts, like most beachgoers, resorted to sitting on a stone wall overlooking the beach instead. Potts, however, was dismayed to see some children in the newfound pond despite the unsanitary-looking foam forming at the edges.
“You’ve got all this water out here, and you’ve got people wading through this stuff,” he said in a lamentable tone.
With Lake Michigan levels 1 foot and 4 inches higher than this time last year, the new high watermark has overtaken a number of shoreline structures, posing a serious threat to boaters and the largest municipal harbor system in the nation.
Dime Pier, a derelict breakwater between Navy Pier and the entrance to the lock at the mouth of the Chicago River, is completely underwater. Breakwalls surrounding Monroe Harbor, due east of Grant Park, are nearly submerged.
Around 10 p.m. July 17, a 25-foot motorboat hit one of the Monroe Harbor breakwalls near Queen’s Landing, tossing two of the five passengers onto the structure. All five were rescued.
Only a week earlier, a powerboat traveling near Diversey Harbor around 1:55 a.m. slammed into a nearby jetty, ejecting its three passengers into the lake. A 28-year-old woman from Vernon Hills was hospitalized and later pronounced dead.
Westrec Marinas, the company that manages Chicago’s harbors, has installed buoys at several locations, including Dime Pier, Monroe Harbor and 59th Street, to warn boaters about submerged navigational structures.
Gary Feracota, president of the Chicago Harbor Safety Committee, said boaters who don’t have GPS devices should familiarize themselves with navigational charts provided by the U.S. Coast Guard.
“The navigation risks are very, very high — the highest we’ve seen in a lot of years,” Feracota said. “When you have high lake levels, these structures that are normally visible from the water are submerged — but not submerged enough not to hit. They’re just hidden by the water. So, if you don’t have your wits about you and you’re not attentive, you can certainly run into trouble.”
Meanwhile, as Lake Michigan has risen, the amount of clearance that boaters have as they travel underneath Chicago bridges has dwindled.
This has posed problems for the owners of some powerboats docked in Diversey, 59th Street and Jackson Park Inner harbors, where vessels need to pass underneath Lake Shore Drive to venture out onto Lake Michigan. Earlier this year, officials advised these boaters about the shrinking headroom, advising them to transfer to other harbors before their vessels are trapped or they potentially collide with the bridge.
Today, many of the slips that are usually occupied are empty.
On a nice summer day, it’s not uncommon to have as many as 30,000 people visit the Lakefront Trail, the winding, 18-mile path that guides cyclists, joggers and sightseers through 13 neighborhoods, four major parks and a number of Chicago attractions.
In response to the logjam of leisurely walkers, marathon runners and speeding bikers, in 2016 then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel spearheaded efforts to separate the walking and bike trails.
But, these days, it’s still difficult to navigate due to flooding and damage from Lake Michigan waves.
At least three stretches of the trail are partitioned off. Between Oak Street and Ohio Street beaches, once one of the busiest branches, both pedestrians and cyclists are now confronted with wooden barricades meant to direct them away (although the warnings are mostly ignored).
Closures in the 2200 block of North Lake Shore Drive, just north of North Avenue Beach in Lincoln Park, and in the 4900 block of South Lake Shore Drive in East Hyde Park have caused some pedestrians to spill back onto the bike paths.
The South Side closure, residents say, is the result of long-standing neglect.
Although the area between 47th Street and Hyde Park Boulevard was identified in the early 1990s as among the “eight most critical miles of the lakefront,” designated for reconstruction by federal, state and local agencies, it remains one the last two left undone. (Locals opposed the redesign to the area between 57th Street and Promontory Point.)
As a result, instead of resembling the broad, concrete stair steps that buffer areas like Fullerton Beach, it relies on the shoreline protections built in the early 1900s, which have effectively crumbled into the lake and formed makeshift revetments.
On days when northerly gusts churn up waves, pedestrians notice the gobs of lake rocks tossed onto the walkway. This year, South Side residents like John Jefferson, of Hyde Park, have also noticed parts of the path have started to cave in.
“The foundation right there is starting to give out, because of the poor maintenance over the years and decades,” said Jefferson, 36. “I remember when I was in high school in the mid-2000s, I was seeing it starting to deteriorate then. But … not as bad as it is now.”
Lemons, the Park District spokeswoman, said the city is working to identify funding for the project.
Late last month, it only took 20 mph winds and 8-foot waves to capture the attention of cyclist Bob Petite near North Avenue Beach.
Petite, 72, has lived near water his entire life, including near the North Atlantic in his native Nova Scotia. And while the Great Lakes can’t compare to the oceans in size, the wild fluctuation in water levels commands just as much respect.
“On the ocean, you’re dealing with the tides all the time. Here, when you have high water levels, you’re not as prepared for it,” Petite said.
“I think we’re so fortunate to have the lakefront. I just hope it doesn’t get washed away on us.”