PDHP Proactive Approach to Dramatically Changing Lake

January 17, 2020

If you have been to a Lake Michigan beach over the last year, no doubt you noticed the effects of the abnormally high lake level.  Across the Great Lakes, beaches are shrinking, property is at risk, and public access is being washed away. New forecasts by the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) are predicting lake levels will continue to rise in 2020, breaking century-old records. This month, Lake Michigan is over 17 inches higher than it was in January 2019. The USACE predicts record-breaking Lake Michigan levels will occur between this month and summer. Already, Lake Michigan is more than three feet above average.

Why So High?

High Lake Michigan water levels are attributed to higher levels of precipitation in the last year – 2019 had the highest precipitation recorded in over 125 years. According to the National Weather Service, we are also experiencing a warmer winter than anticipated; as a result, lake levels will remain high. Warmer winters contribute to higher lake levels. 

The warmer than average temperatures in December led to more significant runoff due to snowpack melting, especially on lakes Superior, Michigan, and Huron, leading to more water supply.  Warm air also causes less evaporation off the lakes’ surface, which leads to more water in the system.  Because the temperatures are higher, ice dams can’t form along shorelines protecting beaches and shoreline structures from damaging high wave action and severe erosion during winter storms.

High lake levels cause storms and the wave action associated with them to be even more damaging to shorelines. High water levels allow waves to come up higher onshore escalating beach erosion. According to the USACE, this sets the stage for coastal impacts and damages in 2020, similar to, or worse than, what was experienced last year.

The New Normal, or Not?

Lake Michigan water levels have been tracked as far back as 1918 and indicate an average 20-year trend between water level lows and water level highs. However, in 2013, Lake Michigan dropped to the lowest level ever. Now, seven years later, the lake’s water level is expected to be at record-breaking highs. Are changing climate conditions feeding rapid shifts in lake levels? It is anybody’s guess if these erratic water levels are the “new normal.” 

What is the Park District Doing to Protect our Public Lakefront Properties? 

The Park District of Highland Park is taking a pro-active approach to protect our lakefront assets from the effects of the high-water conditions and continue providing safe beach access to the thousands of children, adults, and families that use them each year for recreation and leisure. 

The Park District’s quick action to implement the emergency sand nourishment project earlier this fall at Rosewood Beach served its purpose protecting Rosewood’s parking lot, boardwalk, and structures from the devastating damage the November 11, 2019, and January 11, 2020, storms could have caused. The Park District is also working on options to make structural changes to Rosewood Beach that would protect the beach in the long term. The options under consideration include:

High lake levels accompanied by intense storms over the past few years, especially this past winter, have caused damage to the breakwater wall/barge located at the Park Avenue Boating Facility. The Park District of Highland Park has been working with our engineering consultant on monitoring the condition of the barge/breakwater in past years. The significant damage that was sustained last winter was unanticipated and worse than previous winters.

To seek feasible options that provide long-term access to boating activities at Park Avenue Boating Facility, the Park District has formed a Park Avenue Working Group. The Group consists of  Park District Staff and Board, City of Highland Park Staff and Council, North Shore Yacht Club Members, and resident boaters. Consistent with the Park District’s Mission and Board-approved policies, the Park Avenue Working Group is working with our coastal engineer to seek fiscally responsible site improvements that provide long term access to boating activities at Park Avenue Boating Facility.The Park Avenue Working Group’s objectives are to:

Through ongoing lakefront planning, the Park District is also looking at the big picture by developing a Beach Management Plan for completion in 2021.  The plan will address the increasing complexity of managing lakefront parks, and the need to protect the beaches for recreational use and natural habitat. To support the project, the Park District has been awarded grant funding through the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Coastal Management Program. The total project cost is $35,000, half of which is reimbursable by the grant. The Park District’s match is budgeted in the 2020 Capital Plan.

To develop the plan, the Park District will work will engineers at SmithGroup. Engineers will evaluate existing conditions to develop management recommendations and strategies for Moraine Beach, Millard Beach, Park Avenue Boating Facility, and Rosewood Beach. Each location is unique and will be addressed separately to develop specific actions that are customized to local conditions. The focus of the proposed plan is to develop practical, implementable, and quantifiable strategies to address sources of water quality degradation, habitat creation and protection, universal public access, and long-term resilience honoring the Park District’s mission and vision of environmental stewardship and appreciation of the natural world.