Erosion Along Lake Michigan
Jerome McDonnell / WBEZ

Lake Michigan Is Eroding Illinois’ Only Natural Shoreline. Here's What It Looks Like Today.

Jerome McDonnell / WBEZ
Erosion Along Lake Michigan
Jerome McDonnell / WBEZ

Lake Michigan Is Eroding Illinois’ Only Natural Shoreline. Here's What It Looks Like Today.

Jerome McDonnell / WBEZ

Condos and cottages aren’t the only victims of high lake levels and erosion. It’s also been a rough 2020 for Illinois Beach State Park, as northeast as you can get in Illinois. The park’s reopened now, but this winter took a toll.

This beach is the state’s only natural shoreline — likely the most biologically diverse location in the Prairie State — and it’s getting battered hard by Lake Michigan.

While other state parks quietly waited to reopen, this park’s hundreds of acres have struggled because of flooding and damage connected to erosion. Brad Semel, from Illinois Department of Natural Resources, puts it this way: “We're just seeing the natural history of Illinois literally wash into Lake Michigan.”

Semel isn’t the only person who calls Illinois Beach State Park a “crown jewel.” Beyond being the only 6.2 miles of natural shoreline in the state, its impressive list of credentials includes hosting more than 55 endangered and threatened species.

The park became the first land protected by Illinois Nature Preserve status in the mid-60s. In 2015, it was recognized by the U.N. convention on wetlands for “six globally rare and representative wetland types.” Semel said it features rare panne wetlands, only found here and at Lake Baikal in Russia. The pannes are microecosystems in the low areas between the dunnes where there can be standing water or no water at all. Now, he said, “all the rare communities have been under threat as the shoreline recedes into Lake Michigan.”

Erosion damage has kept sections of the park off limits until recently. If you can’t make it in person, here’s a short tour of some of the natural treasures under siege.

A man shows areas under water along Lake Michigan
Jerome McDonnell / WBEZ

In the above photo, naturalist Brad Semel shows a spot currently underwater next to the lake shore. In the wall behind the computer, a photo shows one of those rare ecosystems in full flower. 

Gary Glowacki stands along the shore at Lake County Forest Preserves
Jerome McDonnell / WBEZ

As Gary Glowacki checks his GPS, he finds that some nesting sites of the rare Blanding's turtles are now right on the water. A wildlife ecologist with the Lake County Forest Preserves who spearheads a turtle recovery program, Glowacki said this spot used to be “a high dry spot” with probably “20 or 30 feet of additional beach here last summer.” 

Blanding's turtles would normally return to this same spot to lay their eggs. Now it’s too close to the water. “It’s pretty disheartening to see this dramatic loss of nesting habit that's so critically important for turtles,” Glowacki said.

Brad Semel stands on top of the pile of stones blocking Lake Michigan
Jerome McDonnell / WBEZ

One of the key issues for the park isn’t even the loss of shoreline. Worse is the flooding of the eroding shoreline that happens when drainage creeks get blocked with debris. Brad Semel stands on top of the pile of stones and gravel blocking Kellogg Creek from reaching Lake Michigan, which in this Feb. 24 photo (above) is just behind the photographer’s back. The gravel was pushed in front of the creek during a big storm on January 11. 

Removing it requires permits and heavy machinery and — because environmental laws say you can’t put it back in the lake — a place to put the fill. In the meantime all the surface water draining from the residential communities west of Illinois Beach State Park now floods hundreds of acres where rare plant and animal species are trying to survive the winter. Semel said it’s “having devastating consequences on the animal life in the uplands.”

Prickly Pear Cactus Along Lake Michigan
Jerome McDonnell / WBEZ

The flood water is nutrient-laden silt that degrades the priceless wetlands and prairies. Illinois Beach State Park is known for its strong community of native prickly pear cactus. Like everything else around, this cactus is covered in silt. The silt is so thick in some places that it kicks up clouds of dust as you walk through it.

Runoff from Kellogg Creek
Jerome McDonnell / WBEZ

While much of the runoff from Kellogg Creek goes into the park, some of it makes its way to the lake by flowing over a city street. That creates a reoccurring access problem for the Lake County water pumping station at the end of the road near Lake Michigan. Naturalist Brad Semel said when lake levels were lower and the creek got blocked, pressure from creek water would usually open it up. Now, with the high water levels, every storm from the northeast is liable to plug the creek again.

Structure stops sediment erosion along Lake Michigan
Jerome McDonnell / WBEZ

In the early 1900s, a peninsula-like structure of steel sheet pile, called a groin, was put in place to stop sediment from sliding down the shoreline. But the problem with a hardened point is that the waves start scooping out everything south of the hardened point. In the 1950s engineers put in gigantic square cement blocks for shore protection. Now, the high lake levels have scooped out all the sand underneath those blocks and are swallowing them into the lake. All the scooping is repeatedly plugging the mouth of Kellogg Creek at the bottom of the photo.

A map of erosion along Lake Michigan
Courtesy of Healthy Port Futures

The latest generation in shoreline protection is offshore islands of “rubble” that dissipate the wave energy before it hits the shore. Illinois is investing $45 million in these structures with the hope of protecting the park. A pilot program this summer will put two underwater islands of rubble offshore. (See the red boxes above.) Advanced testing in tanks in Ontario is expected to continue this summer on more permanent underwater island structures. (See the white boxes.) Builders plan to angle the structures in a way that would dissipate not just wave energy, but would help push sand back up on the beach and hold off erosion on Illinois’ only natural shoreline. With lake levels still on the rise, Brad Semel said there’s a lot at stake. “You can’t see these plants washing away, so it’s difficult to understand how much biodiversity has been lost in such a short period of time.”

Jerome McDonnell covers the environment and climate for WBEZ. Follow him @jeromemcdonnell.