State of the Beach/State Reports/IL

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In November 2004, Illinois announced it would seek application into the National Coastal Zone Management (CZM) Program. A total of 29 coastal states and five island territories have developed CZM programs representing more than 99.9 percent of the nation's 95,331 miles of oceanic and Great Lakes coastline. In December 2010 Governor Pat Quinn signed an Executive Order to establish the Illinois Coastal Management Program (ICMP) within the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR). Through the federally-funded program, Illinois will receive $2 million annually from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

On September 15, 2011, NOAA’s Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management (OCRM) published a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the proposed Illinois Coastal Management Program in the Federal Register for a 45-day public comment period. The DEIS, which is required under the National Environmental Policy Act as part of OCRM’s review and potential approval of the ICMP, describes the state’s coastal management program and how it meets the requirements of the Coastal Zone Management Act. The comment period on the DEIS closed on October 31, 2011 and the EIS is now final.

On January 31, 2012, NOAA’s Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management approved the Illinois Coastal Management Program (ICMP).

Because the Illinois CZM program is brand new, Surfrider's ratings for the beach health indicators are provisional. Following is a description of the proposed program, along with a discussion of the physical boundaries of the program jurisdiction.

The Illinois Coastal Management Program (ICMP) is dedicated to protecting and managing the natural and cultural resources along the 63-mile stretch of Lake Michigan shoreline. During the last two centuries, Illinois’ coast has undergone nearly a complete metamorphosis with its monumental hydrologic modifications, enormous industrial impacts, building of a transportation infrastructure, and creation of skyscrapers along the Chicago shoreline. With all these changes, it is remarkable that the coastal resources still contain some of the richest, rarest and most diverse complex of plant and animal species and natural habitat areas in the state.

The Lake Michigan shoreline of Illinois is highly urbanized and has been subject to considerable stress from intense land use and competition to serve the economic and workforce needs and demands of this densely populated area. Lake and Cook counties are currently home to 6 million people and are projected to be home to nearly 6.8 million people by 2030. It is estimated that more than 20 million visitors visit the Lake Michigan shoreline each year. Illinois Beach State Park alone has over 2 million visitors annually. Lake Michigan provides water supply to nearly 7 million Illinois residents (over half of the state’s entire population).

The environmental legacy of industrial sites along the coast and the needs and demands of a growing urban community create a complex set of issues to balance as ICMP invests in programs that seek to restore ecosystems and meet the increasing demands for open space, recreation, and public access.

Illinois Ratings

Coastal Management Program Priorities

The ICMP will initially focus on efforts to address the following program areas which are also outlined in the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy. The ICMP will describe desired outcomes, prioritize strategies for achieving them, and suggest site specific projects:

  • Invasive Species
  • Habitat, Ecosystems and Natural Area Restoration
  • Areas of Concern
  • Persistent Bio-accumulative Toxins
  • Sustainable Development
  • Non-point source pollution
  • Information and Indicators
  • Public Access and Recreation
  • Economic Development

Coastal Zone Boundary

See here for links to detailed maps and program resource documents.

The coastal zone boundary for the Illinois Coastal Management Program (ICMP) defines the land and water areas that are within the limits of this program. The Illinois Coastal Zone Boundary focuses strictly on the landscape, and only to the extent necessary to control shorelands - those which could have a direct and significant impact on the coastal waters. The total landward zone is estimated at 110 square miles, which is one of the smallest inland boundaries in the country.

Because of the degree of urbanization across the entire Illinois coastal area, the demarcation of the coastal zone boundary is along the center line of selected streets, roads and highways that approximate the watershed limits. In a few locations, it was necessary to use railroad right-of-ways. The use of the road and railroad infrastructure to define the coastal zone boundaries provides the advantage of defining a line that is easily identified on the ground. There is no provision made for political boundaries.

The boundary is foresighted, in that it includes those areas which could reasonably be expected necessary in order to address the issues identified as meriting special attention through the Illinois CMP. It includes navigable segments of the immediate inland waterways, which will enable addressing critical Lake Michigan issues, such as invasive species, combined-sewer overflow, recreational boating, tourism, and water quality. It also assures that all existing public parks along these waterways are included. These areas are appropriate for inclusion, based on the dependency of these corridors on water access and their visual relationships in such a highly urbanized area.

A Two-Tiered Coastal Zone Boundary
The geologic and engineering history of the Illinois coast gives this coastal setting some physical attributes which are distinct to the Great Lakes Region. The coastal zone boundary for Illinois has taken into account these physical attributes and results in a two-tiered designation. The primary or “lakeshore” coastal zone boundary defines the land area within the present-day Lake Michigan watershed. This “present-day watershed” area is roughly 85 square miles. A secondary or “inland waterway” coastal zone boundary defines corridors along select segment of rivers that historically flowed to Lake Michigan but were engineered in the early 1900s to flow away from the lake. These inland waterways have a navigable link to Lake Michigan and are a critical interface between Lake Michigan and the regional river system. The inland waterways included in the coastal zone boundary add roughly another 25 square miles to the inland portion of our coastal zone.

1. Lakeshore Coastal Zone Boundary
Green Bay Road plays a major role in defining the coastal zone boundary through Lake County and into northern Cook County. This arterial generally follows the crest of a glacial moraine (the Highland Park Moraine) that is the high ground forming the boundary of the Lake Michigan watershed. In northern Lake County, Green Bay Road is as much as four miles inland from the Lake Michigan shoreline, and thus northern Lake County has a broad area within the coastal zone. This extent includes all of the watersheds of streams that drain this area and discharge to Lake Michigan such as Kellogg Creek near Winthrop Harbor, Bull Creek in Zion and Beach Park, Waukegan River in Waukegan, and Pettibone Creek in North Chicago.

The coastal zone boundary along Green Bay Road assures that all of the ravines of the North Shore municipalities are within the designated coastal zone. These ravines include intermittent streams that discharge stormwater and surface drainage to Lake Michigan. The ravines also have a variety of slope stability and erosion issues that are critical coastal management concerns.

The coastal zone boundary along Green Bay Road (with a few road name changes in Lake Forest, Highwood, and Glencoe) extends as far south as Tower Road in Winnetka. At Tower Road, the boundary shifts about one half mile eastward to Sheridan Road. This boundary shift occurs for two reasons. First, Tower Road approximates the southern limit of the North Shore ravines. Second, and more importantly, this shift is consistent with how the lake watershed is defined through the municipalities to the south. Surface drainage is directed to combined sewers and there is no storm-water discharge to Lake Michigan. In the municipalities of Glencoe, Winnetka, Kenilworth, Wilmette, Evanston and all but far southern Chicago, the Lake Michigan watershed boundary is essentially along the upper limits of the beaches or along the shore-protection structures along the shoreline. This narrow band of Lake Michigan watershed is a result of the river and drainage engineering of this urbanized shore.

The watershed basis for defining the Illinois coastal zone boundary would dictate that much of the lakeshore from Glencoe southward would have little or no coastal zone land. However, a boundary has been defined to assure inclusion of all parkland that borders or is in proximity to the lakeshore. Sheridan Road provides an arterial and common boundary from Winnetka southward to Chicago’s far north lakeshore. Streets that border the western (landward) side of Chicago’s lakeshore park system are used to define the boundary. Through the Chicago Loop, Michigan Avenue provides a boundary to include all of Grant Park as well as parkland north of the Chicago River in the Streeterville neighborhood. On Chicago’s near south lakeshore, the Metra right-of-way provides a boundary to include the full extent of Burnham Park to either side of Lake Shore Drive. On Chicago’s far south lakeshore, the boundary along South Shore Drive and connecting arterials provides for inclusion of all lakeshore parks and follows the designated route of the Lake Michigan Circle Tour.

In southeastern Chicago, the lakeshore coastal zone boundary extends inland to encompass a broad area of lakes, streams and wetlands that have a hydrologic connection to Lake Michigan and are part of the Lake Michigan watershed. Lake Calumet and the Calumet River are key features, as well as Wolf Lake, Indian Creek, and Hegewisch Marsh. The lakeshore coastal zone boundary through the Calumet area has generally been defined along the first through street landward from the water or wetland areas. The boundary crosses the Calumet River at the Thomas J. O’Brien Lock and Dam. This facility separates water of the Lake Michigan watershed from water diverted away from Lake Michigan in the Illinois Waterway system.

2. Inland Waterway Coastal Zone Boundary
The second-tier boundary for the Illinois coastal zone consists of land corridors along the two river systems in the Chicago area that historically flowed to Lake Michigan but now have their flow diverted away from the lake. The Chicago River was diverted in 1900 with completion of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. The Little and Grand Calumet River flowed to Lake Michigan until 1922 with completion of the Calumet-Sag Channel.

Dams and bulkheads form a water barrier between these river systems and Lake Michigan. However, locks provide navigation access between the rivers and lake. These locks also provide a means to open river flow into Lake Michigan during heavy precipitation storm events, when it is necessary to manage a surplus of combined-sewer flow into the river system. The segments of these river systems in proximity to the Lake Michigan watershed provide a front line for managing water quality, invasive species, and recreational and commercial boating between the rivers and lake.

A corridor along these inland waterways is defined to include land that borders these waterways and to include existing parkland and public space along the water edge. The primary basis used in defining these corridors was to use the first through street landward from the waterway. In some cases, this boundary division was straight forward, such as along a major part of the North Shore Channel where McCormick Boulevard is parallel to the west side of the channel and corresponds to the border of existing channel-side parkland. Where it was possible to define a boundary along arterials that parallel the waterway, these arterials were used rather than secondary streets closer to the waterways. Examples of such selected arterials are Elston and Clybourn Avenues along the North Branch Chicago River, and Archer and Canalport Avenues along the South Branch Chicago River.

The downstream limits of the inland waterways were determined by the bridge crossing closest to the where these rivers transition into the engineered channels that provide for their westward diversions. The downstream limit of the corridor along the South Branch Chicago River occurs at the Damen Avenue Bridge. The downstream limit of the corridor along the Little Calumet River occurs at the Ashland Avenue Bridge.

An upstream limit for the corridor along the North Branch Chicago River is defined as the dam and weir located on the North Branch at West River Park near Foster Avenue. This structure corresponds to the upstream navigable limit of the North Branch.


(+) The ​Illinois North Shore Regional Sand Management Working Group has brought together public coastal landowners and government officials from local to federal level to develop strategies for sand and shoreline management of the Illinois shoreline of Lake Michigan, which includes addressing coastal erosion and protecting natural resources for the benefit of the residents.

(+) For summer 2017, swimmers at all Chicago beaches will be able to find out more quickly if the lake water is safe for swimming. The Chicago Park District, which oversees the city's beaches, plans to expand real-time water testing for bacteria to all city beaches, thanks to a $500,000 contract with the University of Illinois at Chicago that was approved by the Park District board. Previously, the district monitored levels of E. coli bacteria in the water near most beaches using a test that took 24 to 48 hours to produce results. For the 2017 summer, the Park District will send water samples from all 27 city beaches — up from nine in 2016 — to a UIC lab for a real-time test for enterococcus. The newer method reveals results in two to three hours. Faster results mean the public can be notified more quickly. The Park District alerts people if the water quality or weather conditions are dangerous — and whether swimming is permitted — on its beach website, through a beach hotline, 312-742-3224, and via color-coded flags at beaches.

(+) Illinois Governor Pat Quinn announced in January 2014 that his administration was addressing critical infrastructure throughout the state by doubling the investment in clean water projects through the Wastewater/Stormwater and Drinking Water loan programs, also known as the Illinois Clean Water Initiative (ICWI). Further, he earmarked $2 billion for projects such as replacing ancient water mains, upgrading sewers and building wastewater treatment plants statewide.

(+) The Great Lakes Commission (GLC), in partnership with LimnoTech and the Great Lakes states, has developed a free smartphone application that provides convenient, public access to swim advisories and other environmental conditions information for more than 1,800 beaches in the Great Lakes region. The myBeachCast application (app) retrieves locational and advisory data for Great Lakes in the eight Great Lakes states. The app also features real-time and forecasted weather and lake conditions (e.g., water temperature, wave heights, wind speed/direction) and nearshore marine forecasts, drawn from the Great Lakes Observing System (GLOS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). myBeachCast allows users to discover local beaches based on the user’s location, view beaches and their status on a map, save favorite beaches, and get driving directions. To download myBeachCast, go to

(+) On January 31, 2012, NOAA’s Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management approved the Illinois Coastal Management Program.

(+) In May 2011 the Chicago Tribune reported that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had issued an order that stretches of the Chicago River must be clean enough for "recreation in and on the water," a legal term for recreational activities including swimming and canoeing. The order will require the North Side Treatment Plant to disinfect their treated sewage before it is discharged into the Chicago River. In June 2011 the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District voted to disinfect the wastewater discharged into the river from the North Side and Calumet water reclamation plants.

(+) The existing 26 miles of Chicago’s public lakeshore park system create a linear park expanse that is unrivaled around the world for its beauty and public accessibility. For all the beaches and park shoreline in Chicago, there is unrestricted public access for residents and non-residents.

(+) President George W. Bush's FY2007 budget for beach fill and related projects includes $10,000,000 construction funding for the Chicago shoreline.

(+) Chicago is tightening limits on industrial water pollution for the first time in more than a decade. Until the new restrictions were enacted in April 2006, the city had no limits on how much arsenic, molybdenum and chlorine could be discharged into its wastewater treatment system.

(+) Due to improvements to the level of sewage treatment and to completion of portions of the Deep Tunnel project, more than 60 species of fish can now be found swimming in the Chicago River, compared to five in 1970.

(0) For the 2006 swimming season, Chicago instituted a new warning system for beach health advisories and beach closures. Formerly, beaches were closed when the E. coli bacteria level reached 235/100 ml for two days in a row. With the new system, beaches remain open with a yellow warning flag if the levels are above 235 and are only closed with a red flag if levels are above 1,000.

(-) Thus far Illinois has been relatively slow in addressing either climate change mitigation or adaptation. While the state acknowledges that climate change is an area of concern, it lacks discussions concerning initial adaptation strategies and measures.

(-) When it comes to protecting the shoreline from development, there are no statewide mandated setbacks, construction restrictions, or even general policies/rules governing the shoreline.

(-) In March 2017 the Trump administration proposed a 97% cut in funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

(-) Illinois had the 3rd-highest percentage of failing beachwater samples in 2009, with 16% of samples exceeding national standards.

(-) Illinois is the last of the 35 eligible coastline states to join the Coastal Zone Management Program administered through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

(-) Chicago released an estimated 34.5 billion gallons of rain-diluted sewage into local streams during the period from 2000 to 2006. Although these streams drain away from Lake Michigan into the Mississippi River, during a few severe storms since 2000 about 2.9 billion gallons of river water with and unknown volume of sewage mixed in was released into Lake Michigan.


  • Illinois Bans Microbeads In June 2014, Illinois became the first state to ban the production, manufacture, or sale of personal care products containing plastic microbeads. The industry-supported ban comes after a study released last year by researchers at 5 Gyres and SUNY Fredonia showed high levels of microplastics, including the beads, in the Great Lakes. State legislatures in California, Minnesota, New York, and Ohio are considering bans or other legislation on plastic microbeads, citing concern over how these plastic pieces will impact fish and other wildlife. Some major manufacturers, including Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, and L’Oreal have also pledged to phase plastic microbeads out of their products and search for alternatives. More on this.
  • Chicago Plastic Bag Ordinance Passed After several years of starts and stops, an important step was taken in Chicago as the city's aldermen, led by Alderman Joe Moreno, voted to institute a ban (effective Aug 2015, for smaller chains Aug 2016) on single-use plastic bags. The language in the ordinance exempts restaurants and retail stores with two or fewer locations and less than 10,000 sq. ft. Affected stores will be required to provide reusable or recyclable bags. Although the ordinance is a significant step toward reducing and preventing plastic pollution, the ordinance's singular focus on plastic bags (and not paper or "compostable" bags) leaves much room for improvement so that single-use bag usage and pollution is curbed overall. The Chicago Chapter will take this for what it is: Phase One of the campaign to bring this city up to the level of other cities globally that are banning plastic, instituting fees on paper, and promoting reusable bags. The chapter will remain patiently vigilant and activated on this issue going forward.
  • SB 3442 - Bad Bag Legislation Defeated Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn vetoed a bill in August 2012 that would have required plastic bag manufacturers to set up collection and recycling programs while preempting towns and cities from adopting bag ordinance, calling it a “roadblock” for local communities to make their own choices. More info.
  • Surfing Is Not A Crime in Chicago! After 9+ months of letters, emails, phone calls and meetings, activists from Surfrider Foundation's Lake Michigan Chapter (there is also now a Chicago Chapter) succeeded in making surfing officially legal at 4 beaches in the City of Chicago!
  • Memorial Day - Labor Day - Montrose Beach and 57th St. Beach
  • Labor Day - Memorial Day (off season) - Montrose, 57th, Osterman & Rainbow Beaches are open to surfing at your own risk.
  • More information on the rules is available here.

To see all of Surfrider Foundation's coastal victories and campaigns, go here.

State of the Beach Report: Illinois
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