Water safety officials in Chicago say they’re trying to find a solution to a dangerous situation caused by high water levels on Lake Michigan that have left navigational structures fully submerged, but it’s unclear which government agency is supposed to take the lead.
Two boats have crashed into break walls this month. One of the accidents was fatal. Record high water has covered jetties and break walls almost entirely along the lake, making them less visible to boaters, especially at night. Officials have not said whether high water levels were the main factor, but several water safety experts said it most certainly contributed.
“We’re really in a situation that hasn’t occurred before,” said Tim Kroll, chief of operations at the Chicago U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “Some of these structures were built a hundred years ago. You don’t really design for these significant outliers and that’s where we’re at right now,” he said, referring to record water levels.
While break wall accidents happen every season, this year has been worse than normal, said an official with the Coast Guard, which responds to boating accidents on the lakes.
That’s led the Army Corps to discuss possible temporary solutions to make break walls — which are underwater structures meant to break up waves to create a smoother water surface for vessels — more visible.
Options could include a line of buoys along the break wall, or adding to the number of lights along it to increase visibility, according to officials from several agencies that respond to boating accidents, including the Chicago Fire Department and the Coast Guard.
“It’s something that we’ve been actively discussing. I’ve been in contact with our sister districts in Detroit and Buffalo because all the Great Lakes are facing this right now,” Kroll said. “It invokes the whole climate change discussion as to ‘is this the new normal?’ And it’s hard for us to say what is the right thing to do.”
But even if there was a clear solution, it’s unclear which agency would be responsible for funding and maintaining additional resources to increase visibility — and agencies seemed to be unsure when asked by WBEZ who should implement a temporary fix.
Who’s in charge?
The Army Corps, which owns the erosion containment structures and jetties that are submerged on Lake Michigan, said navigational safety initiatives would fall under the purview of the U.S. Coast Guard.
“I always thought that the lighting or any kind of a hazard to boaters — it’s been a Coast Guard mission to mitigate those risks,” Kroll said.
A petty officer and a spokesperson at the U.S. Coast Guard pointed to state and city agencies, saying the Coast Guard’s main responsibility is search and rescue, not implementing new or temporary infrastructure.
The State of Illinois Department of Natural Resources said it would likely fall to the city to mark submerged objects in Lake Michigan.
The Chicago Department of Transportation, which primarily manages structures on the Chicago River, said it would not have the authority, or the equipment, to modify structures owned by the U.S. Corps.
Kroll did say the Corps plans to meet with key agencies to devise a plan for how to move forward, but didn’t provide details.
“Some of the agencies are getting together and brainstorming how to handle it, and through what authority they can employ and what funds they can employ,” he said. “That conversation just hasn’t been completed yet and action will follow.”
In the meantime, the U.S. Coast Guard is urging boaters to take extra precautions on the lake, and utilize resources like charter maps, which show boaters where structures like break walls are located.
“Mariners are advised to be extra vigilant while operating their vessels as there may be additional hazards and obstructions that are now submerged but not charted,” a Coast Guard press release reads.
Mariah Woelfel is a producer at WBEZ. You can follow her on Twitter @MariahWoelfel.