North Shore communities find combating loss of sand a costly undertaking
The movement of sand along the Illinois shore has costs to industry, tourism and habitat.
Illinois’ northern lakefront is a tale of haves and have-nots when it comes to sand. Decades of human interference have turned the seemingly mundane task of maintaining local beaches into a complex and costly undertaking.
Nowhere is this more evident than the 7-mile stretch of lakefront between Zion and Waukegan — microcosms of two different predicaments — where shoreline communities are learning an overabundance or scarcity of sand isn’t just a problem for beachgoers.
In Zion, accelerated beach erosion has threatened infrastructure that provides neighboring communities with drinking water, possibly costing millions of dollars to repair, and has endangered globally rare wildlife at Illinois Beach State Park.
Meanwhile, in Waukegan, the build-up of sand has dramatically hampered its shipping industry, trapping so much sand near the approach to Waukegan Harbor that the port has closed temporarily during five of the past eight years, increasing the cost of business for some companies and threatening jobs.
From Wisconsin to Indiana, the culprits behind many of these issues are man-made structures that trap sand, said Donald White, general manager of the Lake County Public Water District.
"You can’t point fingers at any one party, because everyone’s guilty of the same things," he said. "We have to figure out a solution."
When the Lake County water district had an intake pipeline installed in 1970, about 4 feet of backfilled sand anchored the vital piece of infrastructure, which extends about 3,000 feet into Lake Michigan from Zion.
Two decades ago, the pipeline’s safeguard appeared to be vanishing as consultants noticed sand levels had dropped beneath the pipe at some points and declined to the halfway mark at others, leaving it susceptible to being moved by currents or waves, White said.
In the years since, dive inspections have continued to find areas along the pipeline where sand levels are "dangerously low," White said.
In a worst-case scenario, a pipeline break could leave 30,000 residents in Zion, Winthrop Harbor and Illinois Beach State Park without water. Even a small breach could affect water supply and compromise quality.
As a quick fix, the water district tried to fortify the pipe by surrounding it with large stones.
Seeking a more permanent solution, it launched a project three years ago to fasten the intake pipeline to the lake floor with large clamps, and by year’s end, more than half of it will be secured. But the costs raise questions about future work.
The water district raised rates to pay for clamps on the first leg of the project and later issued a $2.5 million bond.
Trustees were torn about the bond issue, White said. "However, if the infrastructure is not maintained, water quality standards cannot be met, or if the intake is lost, (there would be) no water."
Of the 100 clamps required to stabilize the entire pipeline, 41 more are needed at an estimated cost of $1.5 million to $2.3 million, White said.
A heavy equipment operator moves through a gypsum pileJune 13, 2017 at National Gypsum at the Port of Waukegan. (Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune)
In addition to the pipeline, the Zion pumping station is also at risk.
Between 2014 and 2016, erosion fueled by severe storms and an unprecedented rise in lake levels swallowed 184 feet of beach outside the tiny brick building that delivers the town’s water supply.
Powerful storms, not unusual in the fall and winter, could flood the building and interrupt service.
Last year, as a precaution, the water district had a 5-foot stone barrier built along the northeast shoreline of the pumping station, but eventually consultants believe they will have to move the building farther inland.
While many residents are familiar with the devastating effects of erosion, few are aware of how it may be hitting their wallets.
Kathy Champine, who has lived in Zion for 25 years, regularly walks along the shoreline in the morning, a walk that has become increasingly difficult.
"There’s no beach," Champine said "When I walk, I wade through ankle-deep water. The walk between 21st Street and Hosah Park, the water is right up to the bluff. You see the erosion from the bluff falling in, the (exposed) gas lines and pipes from homes that were here 50 years ago."
Champine knew her water rates went up but didn’t realize the increase was funding a shoreline project of such scope.
"Everything goes up," she said. "Water rates are going up. Taxes have gone up tremendously. I guess it just got buried in all of that."
For thousands of years, sand has slowly drifted south from Wisconsin to Indiana, the process that eventually brought sprawling dunes from southern Wisconsin to present-day Illinois Beach State Park. Today, the 4,100-acre park contains diverse habitats, including the state’s only system of beach ridges and swales.
But as shoreline infrastructure, like harbors and piers, was built into Lake Michigan, it began inhibiting the natural movement of sand along the shoreline. As a result, Illinois Beach State Park’s mostly natural shoreline continues to surrender copious amounts of sand each year while it receives a dismal amount from southern Wisconsin’s developed lakefront.
"We don’t have hard numbers, but when you lose several acres over the years, you’re bound to lose scores of endangered species," said Paul Kakuris, president of the Illinois Dunesland Preservation Society. "That’s the most tragic part of all of this."
Aerial photography shows the park’s northern shoreline has receded by more than 600 feet since 1939, meaning less habitat for endangered species, like marram grass. The relatively common dune grass would help retain the sand but has become a rarity in Illinois as beaches have disappeared.
"They come out of the dunes, and they really stabilize the beach itself, because they grow quickly and have a root system that spreads out and holds it all to together," said Diane Tecic, director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ coastal management program. "But with the erosion undercutting it, that destabilizes it all."
While the northern end of the park has lost acres of beach habitat, the southern tier has gained some beach. However, the unstable growth has presented a problem for wildlife, including the federally endangered piping plover, a shorebird known for nesting near the water.
"What’s happening on the south end is not as much erosion as it is an overwash of sand," state coastal geologist Ethan Theuerkauf said. "All that sand coming in and then during a storm, it’s actually being deposited up onto the dune, and it can actually bury these nests."
The state park is home to more than 650 plant and 300 animal species native to the area. Many, like the plover, are protected by state or national regulations.
The entrance to the Port of Waukegan has seen an accretion of beach sand in recent years, compared to beaches farther north in Illinois, which have seen erosion and loss of sand. (Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune)
Shipping industry losses
Much of the sand lost from Illinois Beach State Park has washed south onto the shores of Waukegan, where rambling sand dunes have emerged on the city’s historically industrial lakefront because of a breakwater installed in the late 1920s. The structure, which protects the shoreline from pounding waves, extends about 1,900 feet into the lake, due north of the city’s historic harbor. It has trapped roughly 6 million cubic yards of sand, resulting in 130 acres of new beachfront at what is now North Beach Park, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.
But the breakwater appears unable to capture any more sand. Evidence suggests sand is now drifting around the structure and funneling into the approach channel of Waukegan Harbor, where the amount of sand has sharply risen in past years.
"This harbor didn’t have to be dredged until 1977. We almost had 100 years before we had to dredge," said David Bucaro, of the Army Corps of Engineers Chicago District.
Now, sand builds up in the approach channel regularly, requiring dredging almost every year. Since 2008, there have been five years when sand rose to 9 feet or higher, causing the port to be closed to large commercial shipping vessels.
According to a 2015 Army Corps report, if the harbor isn’t maintained, it puts at risk $9.5 million in annual revenue and 300 jobs.
With a now perennial sand blockade shortening the shipping season, the amount of material moving through the harbor has dramatically dropped. Until 2008, the harbor, historically known for importing cement and gypsum, moved an average of 595,000 tons of cargo a year. Between 2009 and 2013, the average amount declined to 165,000 tons, as the harbor was beset by a combination of sand accumulation and low lake levels. Lake levels rebounded in 2014, but the sand remains.
No longer able to rely on the harbor to stay open, longtime Waukegan businesses like cement companies Lafarge and St. Marys Cement resorted to shipping their commodities to neighboring harbors and trucking them the rest of the way to their facilities. But the 60 employees of National Gypsum Co., the only company that still receives cargo through the harbor, are dependent on a long-term plan to keep the harbor open.
"If it doesn’t get done, we can’t ship gypsum rock," said Rich Romanek, plant manager at National Gypsum. "That’s our vital material to make drywall, which comes from a quarry in Tawas City, Mich. It’s just not economical for us to ship it by truck."
Historical dredging amounts
Cubic yards of sediment dredged at Waukegan Harbor from 1977 to 2015
In response, the Waukegan Port District, city officials and the Army Corps, in a 2016 report outlined three potential options: extending the existing Waukegan breakwater; installing a sand trap at the southern end of Illinois Beach State Park or, perhaps the most controversial idea, excavating a portion of North Beach Park.
These options would reduce the amount of dredging that might be required in a given year but wouldn’t eliminate the need completely, Bucaro said.
Waukegan Harbor is the only deep-draft harbor between Milwaukee and Chicago. In trying to provide funds to keep it open, the Army Corps has cited its importance as a harbor of refuge for passing vessels in the event of sudden storms on the lake.
But low-tonnage harbors like Waukegan’s are considered low priorities, and the Army Corps spends over $1 million on dredging nearly every year.
The agency has emphasized that even if it finds one of the proposals economically feasible and enters into a cost-sharing agreement with the city and the Port District, there’s no way to guarantee federal funds will be available for dredging, leaving the city to pick up that tab.
"With budgetary restrictions and priorities, I don’t know what will happen in the future as it becomes more difficult to maintain," Bucaro said.
Waukegan alternative options and costs
No action would be taken to change current dredging patterns. About 40,000 cubic yards of sand would be dredged annually, resulting in a total of 800,000 cubic yards of sediment dredged by 2039.
Total costs for each of the options below include any initial construction costs (like the sediment trap or breakwater modification), as well as dredging costs over 20 years of preliminary analysis. This is not a comprehensive nor a detailed assessment of actual costs.
Initial construction costs Dredging costs Totals: $17,849,000 $21,825,000 $29,313,000 $28,344,000 Beachgoers return to the parking lot June 13, 2017, at Municipal Beach in Waukegan. (Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune)
In an ironic twist, while the Waukegan breakwater formed North Beach Park, the city’s municipal beach south of the structure has diminished because its supply of sand has been cut off.
With less natural sand migrating, the beach has become abnormally flat, causing water to pool in some spots. Those areas are susceptible to collecting animal waste or stormwater runoff, prompting the beach to sometimes be closed due to E. coli.
To address the problem, Waukegan last year purchased equipment to groom and clean the beach with funds from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
All of these problems — like most involving sand — require more research before a remedy can be developed. Otherwise, researchers say they fear they could be culpable in taking the same hasty actions that produced the problems.
Theuerkauf recently assembled a team of volunteers from the community to regularly monitor elevation at the municipal beach, while Waukegan officials hope to begin work next year on one of the proposals that will help reduce harbor closures.
In Zion, officials may have to figure out how to pay for pipeline and pumping station upgrades as state and federal funding appears unlikely. But there’s a possibility the state DNR will be able to protect some of the shoreline habitat at Illinois Beach State Park against erosion if its EPA grant application is approved.
"It’s really amazing," said Tecic, the DNR program director. "When I first came into this, I was just naive enough to say, ‘There appears to be a problem here. We should get on this.’ The problem we continue to grapple with is it’s really complicated, and there’s so many factors involved. But we have to come through this with a core of information to solve some of these problems."