Rathnavel: Lake Michigan’s effect on coastal housing cannot be washed away


Joshua Hoffman/Daily Senior Staffer

A crisp day on the lakefill. In summer 2019, water levels on Lake Michigan were almost three feet higher than average.

Shruti Rathnavel, Op-ed Contributor

Lake Michigan’s coastline is an ever-changing landscape. Land is created and shorelines are reshaped in the form of lakefills and piers. As this happens, houses are shuttled back and forth — sometimes pulled away from the coastline to protect them from erosion and the wind, other times succumbing to the waves and falling into the water. 

In attempts to protect property along the coast, homeowners and the state finance seawalls, sandbagging and other barriers against the waves. Still, we cannot ignore the threats to lakefront property as the lake’s water levels continue to rise. The higher waves and warmer water have made erosion worse, especially as the extraordinary level of modification witnessed by Lake Michigan’s coastline have destroyed natural barriers to erosion and lake encroachment. 

Wetland areas such as beaches, dunes and bluffs, which used to exist in Evanston and other coastal Illinois towns, have been replaced by structures such as jetties and seawalls. These can protect shorelines in the short term, but they exacerbate damage to beaches in the long term. In July 2019, water levels were almost three feet higher than average summer levels, and in summer 2015, they were only a few inches shy of Lake Michigan’s highest recorded water level since 1998.

Many homeowners see permanently moving their houses away from the coast as a longer-term solution to reinforcing the eroding shoreline. As a result, building movers throughout Illinois have seen a huge spike in demand. 

However, the costs of moving a house can be even more prohibitive, and sometimes insurance companies refuse to help. In January 2020, Michigan Live reported that one woman who had watched the shoreline overtake the woods, dunes and beach by her house went so far as to put her house on cantilevers. Others in similar positions have opted to demolish their homes.

Homeowners can thank lakefill structures, similar to Northwestern’s Lakefill, for the erosion that has caused their current predicaments. Constructing a lakefill displaces huge amounts of sand and changes the course of the waves, which alters the shape of beaches and wetlands. The layer of sand protects the underlying clay soil from the waves, and its absence erodes the lake bed. The more the lake bed erodes, the better conditions become for larger, more violent waves.

It was on these grounds that environmentalists vehemently opposed Loyola University Chicago’s proposal for a lakefill that would have expanded its campus by about a third in the 1980s. State officials had already sold the university the required land, but an environmental lawsuit that pointed out the long-term potential for erosion halted the process.

Despite the increasing instability of housing along the coastline, demand for lakefront housing has only increased. Michigan Live reported last year that in Saugatuck, 44 properties sold along the shore in 2020 compared to only 10 in 2019, and that potential homeowners seem less worried about the potential for erosion in years that water levels lower slightly, even if the overall trend has been increasing sea levels. 

The Lakefill effects of lake erosion hasn’t received a lot of airtime in Evanston, where a vast majority of civic time and energy goes into attacking other housing issues such as student housing, vacancies, property taxes and affordable housing.

But Evanston is a coastal town all the same, and new real estate built in the city should think of the lake before even more Lake Michigan housing projects — and public spaces — end up less than watertight.

Shruti Rathnavel is a Weinberg junior. You can contact her at . If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to . The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.