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Nature is the best solution for Chicago's lakefront
More habitat and fewer break walls for our tipping point species.
Chicago’s lakefront is something that distinguishes us. Miles and miles of greenspace along Lake Michigan, one of the world’s largest freshwater bodies. A key migratory path for millions of birds and home to some of our most unique and endangered forbs, rushes, and sedges.
A little-known study on “coastal storm risk management” is central to the future of our most important and awe-inspiring natural asset. The study is happening quietly as I write this post.
With our wide expanses of sand, it’s easy to forget that the lake’s water levels were at a record high three years ago. But we shouldn’t be lulled into complacency. It’s likely that lake levels will rise again as increasingly severe storms hit the region.
That’s what happened in 2019 and 2020, when we saw Lake Michigan flood portions of the North and South sides of Chicago. Great Lakes Now does a great job providing a summary of the situation here:
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, along with the City of Chicago and Chicago Park District, are conducting the Coastal Storm Risk Management study. Potential measures stretch from adding more break walls to floodproofing buildings to submerged reefs in the lake. It’s worth noting that the vast majority of Chicago’s lakefront is already “hardened” by jetties and steel. It’s a far cry from what it was pre-European settlement.
As wonderful as the lakefront is for birding, the existing shoreline—think iron pilings and concrete walls—provides very limited habitat in a time when we’ve suffered steep losses to shorebirds during the past three decades. The State of the Birds 2022, a report by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative, stated that threats include “disturbance and loss of stopover habitat along coastal beaches and estuaries.”
One-third of shorebirds are so-called tipping point species with population losses exceeding 70% since 1980. Tipping point species are on a trajectory to lose another 50% of their remnant populations in the next 50 years if nothing changes.
Some of the 70 tipping point species that utilize Lake Michigan shorelines in Chicago include: Black Rail, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Hudsonian Godwit, Lesser Yellowlegs, Pectoral Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Short-billed Dowitcher, Stilt Sandpiper, and Whimbrel. Many other shorebird species utilize the shoreline throughout the year, including the beloved Great Lakes Piping Plover.
Prior to the 1800s, the Chicago shoreline was made up of low dunes, oak savanna, and estuaries. The study has an opportunity to elevate these aspects of our natural history while examining ways to protect the shoreline through nature-based solutions that have the potential to be lower-cost while providing rich habitat for an array of species.
We’re in a pivotal moment. Some say Chicago may be at more risk than Miami due to climate change. Though this is a long-term, multi-year study, it’s one that merits following—and weighing in on. We can continue building expensive preventive structures that are prone to failure and do little for wildlife, or we can invest in natural solutions that have worked for eons. The choice is ours.
Flight of the phoebe
Looking for a subtle sign of spring? Short-range migrants have been on the move. These are birds that don’t winter too far south of us. They head north when the temperatures are downright wintry. This map shows Eastern Phoebe year-to-date sightings on March 4. Check for the two little red arrows on the map.
There had only been the two phoebe sightings in Chicagoland in 2023 (above). Here’s the map as of this past Saturday. A lot more red arrows:
Eastern Phoebes are clearly on the move into the region! Look for these elegant, dark-headed flycatchers in most any open area, and around bridges and buildings, where they like to build nests. A few other species that have already made incursions into the region include American Woodcock, Eastern Meadowlark, and Northern Flicker. Blackbirds have been around for most of the past month, too.
I look forward to joining Friends of the Parks on Wednesday, at noon, and sharing “The World of Monty and Rose” as part of a focus on nature-based solutions to lakefront protection and the army corps study. Registration is available here…..Environmental Law and Policy Center is hosting a webinar with author Dan Egan (“The Death and Life of the Great Lakes”), who will be discussing his newest work, “The Devil’s Element: Phosphorus and A World Out of Balance,” on April 12. Registration is available here….Illinois Environmental Council’s annual Springfield lobby day takes place on April 19 and will bring together advocates from across the state to meet with their legislators and advocate for the environmental issues that matter to them most. Learn more and register here.
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