CHICAGO — Walking paths have been submerged, entire beaches swallowed up and homes have been flooded as the rising Lake Michigan continues to batter the Chicago shoreline.
The erosion, aggravated by climate change, has also threatened the city's iconic Lake Shore Drive as officials scramble to protect what's been called Chicago's crown jewel — its treasured shoreline.
Efforts to address erosion along Chicago's shores have been ongoing since the 1970s, when shoreline damage prompted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to investigate. But the project still centers around the group's evaluation and reconstruction plan from 1994.
"They are operating on a study that is 25 years old," Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Thursday at a news conference. "Due to the many climate impacts on the shoreline, particularly in the last five years, a reevaluation of this study is absolutely essential."
That reevaluation may finally be on the horizon after city officials announced Thursday a $1.5 million federal investment in plans to fight back against erosion.
The investment, allocated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as part of its funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, will help experts study the impact of rising waters and climate change on the shoreline. The city is matching the investment with $1.5 million.
"While we've worked to repair urgent damage, more long-term solutions are needed to protect our shoreline and the communities that live, work and play alongside it," Lightfoot said.
The battle against erosion on Lake Michigan's shores is affecting hundreds of cities throughout the Great Lakes Basin. Coastal damage from climate change is estimated to cost at least $1.94 billion over the next five years among 241 municipalities throughout the region as it battles most frequent and violent storms, according to a July 2021 survey. These same communities have already spent $878 million on these damages in two years.
'We’re just at the beginning': Damage from climate change could cost Great Lakes coastal cities billions
Lightfoot said the reevaluation study will build on past shoreline protection efforts amid recent years of heavy storms that have contributed to increasing water levels and erosion. In 2019, as water levels of Lake Michigan neared record highs, Chicago announced a plan to install hundreds of yards of barriers to help protect eight lakefront locations that were vulnerable to flooding.
"Lake Michigan is a crucial and iconic part of Chicago," Lightfoot said. "We not only not only rely upon it for our clean water, but this beautiful shoreline draws residents and visitors alike to our city, making it vital to our tourism industry and economy as a whole. It is the thing that sets up apart from every other city in the country."
U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois called the new funding a "necessary first step to expand the Chicago Shoreline Project" but said he hopes future efforts will focus more closely on erosion on the city's Southside lakefront, which he said has been long left out of protection efforts.
"I have been fighting for equity, for South Lake Shoreline equity," he said.
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Rush added that there is no time to delay further investment in erosion prevention.
"This devastation is a forewarning of what is to come without decisive action on the part of all us," he said. "...We don't have the luxury of waiting anymore. It is upon us now."
In addition to funding the reevaluation study, Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act dollars will also go to the building of the Brandon Road Lock and Dam, a planned barrier preventing an invasive carp species from reaching Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes basin.
"This project will prevent Asian carp, an invasive, terrible species of fish from moving further north into our Great Lakes," Lightfoot said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Chicago's Lake Michigan shoreline is eroding; city gets $1.5M to study