Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and officials from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Illinois Capital Development Board have announced plans for two projects to protect roughly 2.2 miles of shoreline from further erosion at Illinois Beach State Park in Zion for an estimated price tag of $74.5 million.
Shoreline erosion has been a problem for many beaches along the Great Lakes over the years, but has been a particular concern in the northern suburbs as observers have cataloged the steadily shrinking beachfronts.
Construction is slated to begin this spring on a $73 million build out of manmade islands and submerged reef structures that, according to the IDNR announcement, would block and reduce the “erosive force of incoming waves, redirecting nearshore currents” and would also serve as a possible home for aquatic and avian species along the shore. IDNR officials believe it to be the largest capital project in the department’s history.
The project announced Thursday calls for roughly 250,000 tons of rock fill and “armor material” to create 22 underwater, low emergent stone “breakwaters” over 12.2 acres of Lake Michigan and 430,000 cubic yards of sand.
Pritzker lauded the project in a statement, calling Illinois’ lakefront land a “national treasure and one of our greatest resources.”
“It’s essential that we preserve these spaces for future generations to love and learn from,” Pritzker said. “This historic, ambitious project from IDNR and its partners is a commitment that Illinois will continue to tackle the effects of the climate crisis head on and work to build a cleaner, more sustainable Illinois for everyone to enjoy.”
Illinois Department of Natural Resources director Colleen Callahan said the department wants to “do everything we can” to protect both the beach — which officials said has receded by as many as 100 feet in a year in some areas — and the native species in its ecosystem “before they both vanish forever.”
According to IDNR, the vision for the project is a result of more than a year of computer simulations and physical models consultants built to scale in a hydraulic lab in the United Kingdom, replicating 11,000 feet of shoreline.
Consultants tested more than 100 variations for rock fill and breakwater installations, setting what Callahan called “new standards for what living shorelines can be.”
A pilot project totaling an estimated $1.5 million saw the construction of three, roughly 750-foot “rubble ridges” more than 500 feet offshore from the southern part of the Illinois Beach State Park. Those were part of an effort to improve “coastal resiliency,” a term experts have used to describe how beachfronts can withstand erosion and climate change.
Storms and winter conditions result in the lakefront being hit with waves and ice each year, but in recent years, widely varying water levels damaged the beaches even more, according to geologist Robin Mattheus of the Illinois State Geological Survey.
“From 2012 to 2020, a period coinciding with record-low to near record-high lake levels, the north unit of the park alone lost an estimated 670,570 cubic yards of sediment,” Mattheus said. “To help put that number into perspective, that’s enough to fill about 50,000 dump trucks.”
Like the ridges, planners say the ridges and reef structures will not be easily visible to beach patrons.
IDNR Coastal Management Program natural resources manager Ania Bayers said the project is a “testament” to collaboration between agencies that shows a reliance on innovative design and science to “preserve the most basic and important qualities of the places Illinoisans love.”
Project funds will come through the Capital Development Board as part of the $45 billion Rebuild Illinois Capital Plan signed by Pritzker in 2019, which planned for $150 million in funding for port projects as part of $33.2 billion allocated to investing in transportation around the state.
Illinois Capital Development Board executive director Jim Underwood said the project is “critical to stabilizing shoreline erosion and ensuring the property is preserved.”
Several national entities, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Army Corps of Engineers, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, are working with the state on the project. The Great Lake Protections Fund, coastal resilience research group Healthy Port Futures and the Illinois State Geological Survey are also collaborating on the project, according to a release from the IDNR.
Zion Mayor Billy McKinney, who also chairs the binational Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities initiative to advance the protection and restoration of those bodies of water, said it is “so good” to see the state invest in protecting the park.
He said he was hopeful that investments in preserving the park’s beachfront will help maintain the environmental health and vibrancy of the park as one of the state’s most visited parks, which can also be an economic boon to Zion.
“People come there, they visit the businesses in Zion, so it’s a great revenue generator for us,” McKinney said. “That area, when I was growing up here, we spent all of our time at the lake. They had a concession stand down there, the hotel has been renovated and they have a new restaurant down there that people are flocking to. I think this is terrific, the work that the IDNR is putting in there.