Engineers need money to repair damaged lakefront; city projects are incomplete

Col. Aaron Reisinger discusses the range of lake levels projected by the Army Corps of Engineers for Lake Michigan over the next several months during a Community Stakeholders Meeting at the Jacob H. Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies. (Photo by Marc Monaghan)

Staff writer

The Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) predicts Lake Michigan levels will eclipse current record highs, but it cannot perform any long-term protective measures unless the federal government appropriates funds for such work.

“Until we get funding, there’s no work we can do. We have to get funding from the administration and Congress, and that’s a tough process,” said ACE Col. Aaron Reisinger.

The city’s lakefront protection plan has yet to be finished along the lake front trail from 45th Street to Hyde Park Boulevard and on Promontory Point. Jack Spicer, head of the Promontory Point Conservancy, said his group has been meeting with ACE, the Park District and the city to plan reconstruction and preservation work on the peninsula.

Vasile Jurca, a Chicago Department of Transportation engineer, said the city installed 800 feet of concrete barrier between Lake Shore Drive and the Lakefront Trail from 49th to 50th Street in September and 200 feet more near 67th Street after the Nov. 11 storm.

That storm wrecked part of the lakefront promenade in Kenwood, necessitating the closure of the pedestrian Lakefront Trail from 48th to 51st streets. He said reconstruction on the area will be done in consultation with ACE and the Chicago Park District, and it will start in January and last around four weeks.

“We’re going into the new year with a very high level and possibly record-breaking level,” said ACE engineer David Bucaro at a Dec. 2 community meeting. “We’re concerned about that, because this is the still-water elevation. When you have storms on top of these lake levels, that’s when we have dangerous waves that lead to over-wash and flooding — and erosion, as a result of that.”

Reisinger said the Chicago District of ACE has operated its emergency activation center this year, allowing the agency to supplement local and state efforts in combating floods and provide supplemental engineering assistance — it has received 29 requests for help from the Park District since July 8 — but it does not have the data to project what effects climate change will bring to the lakefront.

“We don’t have any data that correlates directly to what we see in terms of the cycles of the lake levels,” he said. “The kind of rains we had in the spring of 2019 are what we attribute the extraordinarily high levels that we’ve had in the summer of ’19, but I’m not aware of that we have any sort of clear projections of how climate variability or climate change would impact lake levels in the long term.”

Reisinger said private property-owners are ultimately responsible for their own properties; CDOT Commissioner Thomas Carney did bring up the Federal Emergency Management Agency, however, which has issued grants to local and state governments to fund buy-back programs for properties affected by flooding.

Reisinger confirmed that the federal government can bring long-term solutions to Chicago such as the unfinished $536-million Chicago Shoreline Protection Project, which was spurred by lake flooding in 1986 and 1987 and planned in the early 1990s. The project would rebuild the revetment from 45th Street to Hyde Park Boulevard and on Promontory Point, but it has not been completed.

ACE is requesting $200,000 for a general evaluation of the project to determine whether federal action should be taken in weaker areas along the lakefront; it has requested the funds each of the past six years. The Park District instituted the Lakefront Shoreline Assessment and Strategic Action Plan in the fall to evaluate conditions from Rogers Park to the East Side.

Director of Planning and Development Heather Gleason said the Park District hopes the two-year plan feeds into the ACE evaluation.

The Park District has also submitted a proposal for a new, two-section breakwater at Jackson Park Harbor, 6400 S. Coast Guard Drive, with construction hopefully beginning by next spring. Gleason said the harbor’s current setup is affecting both boating and shoreline operations; the new design would reduce wave attack and minimize shoreline damage. An existing breakwater was destroyed by the lake levels earlier this year.

“The things (the Park District) is doing now will help us when we get funding to start our work,” Reisinger said. Gleason said the engineering design process for Promontory Point will have to be restarted before work can begin.

U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-1st) organized the meeting, saying he came away from a Sept. 5 meeting on high lake levels with ACE, the Park District and the Department of Transportation infuriated by the lack of attention paid to the lakefront south of Roosevelt Road.