Northwestern tackles coastal stabilization project as lake levels continue to threaten shorelines


Emma Edmund/Daily Senior Staffer

Lake Michigan in November. According to Stefanie Levine, Lake Michigan’s water levels have risen six feet in the past three years and are near historic highs.

Emma Edmund, Engagement Editor

On Sept. 23, Northwestern students received an email from Facilities Management that the University would begin an emergency coastal stabilization project along the perimeter of the campus bordering Lake Michigan.

Soon after, the fences went up, and part of the Lakefill, a popular student hangout adjacent to the lake, closed for most of Fall Quarter.

“The elevated lake levels coupled with significant storm events caused unprecedented damage and erosion to the lakefront,” said a University spokesperson in an email. “Specific to the campus, the erosion caused concerns around safety to both community members who utilize the lakefront paths and the University’s infrastructure.”

The University spokesperson said in an email the current project involves using trap bags to prevent further erosion of the existing rocks and soil around two areas, one adjacent to the NU Sailing Center and another along the Lakefill from the southern tip north to Lanny and Sharon Martin Stadium. Facilities stated that it expects major construction to be complete by December 2020, with landscaping work continuing into spring 2021.

Lake Michigan water levels have been steadily increasing since reaching record lows in 2013, according to data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which measures Lake Michigan in conjunction with Lake Huron. According to the National Weather Service, high lake levels can also make flooding during storm events even worse. While the lake is currently in its seasonal period of lake level decline, the overall rising levels have posed serious issues for the Chicago area as erosion threatens public land, homes and other buildings.

Evanston is no exception. In 2018, the city had to close its dog beach due to rising lake levels. Rising lake levels have impacted NU beaches, but the spokesperson notes that the University does not expect closures related to lake levels or erosion.

[Watch how Evanston tackles high water levels.]

The United States Geological Survey investigated lake level erosion impacts along Lake Michigan’s coast after high water levels from 1985 to 1987 caused significant damage. In October 1986, Lake Michigan reached a high water level of 582.35 feet. For all of 2019, Lake Michigan averaged between 580 and 582 feet. Scientists found that extensive damage to recreational, industrial and domestic facilities occurred due to flooding and erosion.

“Hundreds of millions of dollars have been lost by the 40 million people and by the many industries vital to our economy that are located in the Great Lakes Basin,” USGS scientists noted on their website. “During each episode of high lake levels, rates of bluff erosion increase, beachfront property is lost, and structures and beaches are submerged.”

There are several ways to address this issue, according to Howard Learner, the executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, a legal advocacy organization that focuses on protecting the Midwestern environment. Though the number one priority for any government is to tackle the COVID-19 crisis, Learner said officials should also be looking into policies that take climate change seriously. Climate change, Learner added, could affect water levels of the Great Lakes.

Local governments, for example, can look at shoreline use, and potentially change the location of facilities that produce toxic chemicals and other materials, Learner said. Land use and zoning decisions, often made by local governments, can be used to mitigate damage caused by rising lake levels.

“We need to reassess land use and zoning laws based on changing water level realities, and we need to find ways to use natural systems, wetlands and otherwise, to help soak up and absorb some of the higher water levels so they create less damage,” Learner said. “In short, land use planning and development decisions need to be based on the scientific reality of extreme variation in lake water levels.”

NU’s current project will address immediate concerns while engineers develop a long-term solution, the spokesperson said. As part of that solution, the University plans to at some point survey the entire lakefront to make sure all problems are addressed.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @emmaeedmund

Related Stories:
In Focus: As climate change worsens, combined sewers pose new issues
Report warns of climate change-related impacts on Great Lakes
Great Lakes states see rise in average temperature, report says, posing risk to vulnerable populations