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A discussion that began as an inquiry into the severely diminished dog beach grew into a broader discussion of the ramifications of the rising level of Lake Michigan on Evanston’s beaches and other coastline features. The general discussion, before the May 2 meeting of the City’s Human Services Committee, proposed no solutions or overarching strategy but signaled difficult, and potential extremely expensive, decisions on the horizon.

Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, brought the matter forward in response to dismay expressed by dog beach users. The matter was addressed by John Shabica of Shabica & Associates, who Ald. Fiske introduced as “the expert on all things lakefront.”

“The bearer of bad news,” said Mr. Shabica, somewhat jokingly. He described his firm as “a 38-year old company doing coastal science, coastal engineering.” Analogizing the lakefront to a roof in that “nobody cares about the roof until it leaks,” he said governments do not pay attention to the lakefront until crisis approaches.

Lake Michigan’s water level fluctuates, he continued. Data presented showed a six-foot difference in Lake Michigan between 1986 and today, typifying the “cyclical low-to-high” pattern. Prior to 2013, said Mr. Shabica, the lake experienced a “longer low level [cycle] than we ever anticipated.” The end result was that in January 2013 there was “an all-time record low lake level.”

The dog beach on Feb. 3, 2013, shown in a slide presented at the meeting, was at 576.1 feet above sea level with the resulting 300 feet of sandy beach. Today, the beach stands at 580.6 feet, and most to the sandy beach is gone. According to Mr. Shabica, the lake is still “1.5 feet below what the Army Corps of Engineers considers high lake level.”

The change in lake level is tied to ice cover during the winter and violent storms, said Mr. Shabica. Slides showed ice cover during the 2012 winter, a mild winter with hardly any ice on the lake. In stark contrast, the winters of 2013 and 2014 caused almost complete ice coverage – at least 97%. When ice covers the lake, he explained, there is little or no evaporation. Back-to-back cold winters make for rapid increase in the lake level – about 4 feet higher in just four years.

Solutions are neither easy nor quick. Any changes to the lakefront, including even bringing in imported sand to place on eroded or shrunken beaches, require the approval of as many as seven government agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers,  Department of Homeland Security, and various state agencies. Possible solutions include rebuilding revetments, the rock walls on shore fronts, or wave breaks offshore to interrupt and break waves before they reach the shoreline to keep the higher water level from causing more and more erosion.

Meanwhile, the effects extent beyond just the dog beach. Lawrence Hemingway, the City’s Director of Parks and Recreation, said in response to a question from Alderman Brian Miller, 9th Ward, “All of our beaches are shrinking… we haven’t lost any beaches, but we’re very concerned about Greenwood [Beach].”

One resident reported the water flowing under the boat racks, but Mr. Hemingway assured the committee that the racks would be relocated higher on the beach.

The Committee received the report, but no immediate action was taken or proposed. As the lake continues to rise something may have to be done – and it appears possible the dog beach will disappear entirely.