State of the Beach/State Reports/IL/Shoreline Structures

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Illinois Ratings
Indicator Type Information Status
Beach Access76
Water Quality65
Beach Erosion6-
Erosion Response-3
Beach Fill6-
Shoreline Structures 7 3
Beach Ecology1-
Surfing Areas35
Coastal Development{{{19}}}{{{20}}}
Sea Level Rise{{{21}}}{{{22}}}


Permitting Projects for Coastal Erosion Control - General

Two authorities are responsible for reviewing and permitting construction along the Illinois coast having the purpose of controlling coastal erosion. On the state level, the permitting is done by the Office of Water Resources (OWR), Lake Michigan Management Section, of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR). On the federal level, permitting is done by the U. S Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Chicago District Regulatory Branch. In general, for both the IDNR and the USACE, no projects are permitted that are deemed potentially disruptive to the movement of littoral transport along the beaches and nearshore. An exception to this restriction might include structures that will trap sand but will have a sand management plan, which provides for the bypass or backpass of sand that is captured by the structures. A requirement of permitting by the IDNR is that any shore protection that involves building a beach include the filling of the beach to the maximum capacity of computed sand retention and then, in addition to this capacity volume, include a 20 percent overfill. This overfill assures available sand if needed for any unforeseen adjustment to the beach and nearshore profile. The IDNR distributes public notices concerning any permit applications, allows for the public review of plans for the proposed project, and allows a 30-day period for written comments. No work can begin until the permit is issued.

The wide range in historical lake-level fluctuation in Lake Michigan (6.3 feet) results in the need for some shore protection that has direct interaction with lake water only during times of extreme high lake levels. An example is the revetments built at the toe of the bluffs along the bluff coast. Although these revetments may have some wave impact during extreme storms, commonly a beach may exist adjacent to the revetment, and only at times of higher lake levels might the still water be in contact with the structure.

The permitting process allows shore-protection structures for both private and public lakeshore property to be built extending onto the lake bottom. This is despite the lake bottom being state land held in public trust. Filling of lakeshore land is permitted by Illinois state law conditional that the filling serves a public benefit. An example is the creation of lakeshore parkland such as the parkland of the Chicago lakefront.

For both the IDNR and the USACE, Chicago District, the upper limit to which state and federal permitting of lakeshore construction applies is the Ordinary High Water Mark (OHWM). This is the typical or “ordinary” high level to which the lake water will rise in its long-term fluctuation. Most often, lake level is below this elevation.

In some coastal states, the OHWM defines the boundary between private property and public beach and water. This is not the case in Illinois. Private property and riparian rights along the Illinois coast extend to the calm water shoreline and migrate landward or lakeward with changing lake level (Illinois case law: Brundage v. Knox, 1917).

As defined by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the OHWM along the Illinois coast is 581.5 feet (177.2 m) relative to the International Great Lakes Datum (IGLD) 1985. Only shore construction that occurs below this elevation is subject to permitting by the IDNR and the USACE.

Permitting Projects for Coastal Erosion Control - Specifics

Both private and public construction activities in Lake Michigan require Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Office of Water Resources’ (IDNR/OWR) authorization pursuant to the Rivers, Lakes and Streams Act of 1911 [615 ILCS 5] and IDNR/OWR Part 3704 “Regulation of Public Waters”.

Both the IDNR/OWR and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers use the ordinary high water elevation, 581.5 ft. International Great Lakes Datum-1985 (IGLD-85) to determine whether a permit is required. Construction activities proposed at or lakeward of that elevation require IDNR/OWR authorization. IDNR/OWR permits are issued jointly with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA). The following two types of shore protection permits are issued for work in Lake Michigan:

General Permits No. 1-LM are issued for minor shore parallel protection projects that do not exceed a length of 300 ft., and which meet the special conditions of that general permit. Examples of these projects would be stone revetments or steel sheet pile bulkheads built at the toe of a bluff. This permit does not require the issuance of a public notice but does require IEPA approval.

All other types of shore protection projects proposed within or adjacent to the waters of Lake Michigan and below an elevation of 581.5 IGLD-85 requires a regular permit from the Department. Examples of these types of projects include but are not limited to, revetments (longer than 300 ft.), seawalls/bulkheads (longer than 300 ft.), groins, breakwaters/offshore structures, beach nourishment, piers and modifications to existing structures. These types of projects require the issuance of a 28-day public notice. These projects are reviewed by IDNR/OWR personnel for compliance with Part 3704 Rules, and also require IEPA approval prior to a permit being issued.

Projects proposed outside the waters or the influence of the coastal processes of Lake Michigan and which are entirely above the Department’s regulatory elevation of 581.5 IGLD-85 do not require a permit. These include projects on a bluff and areas upslope, or landward of the existing bluff toe or bluff toe protecting structure. Also, maintenance work associated with the restoration of an existing permitted project to its original specifications does not require a new permit.

As noted earlier, IDNR/OWR personnel must determine whether a proposed shore protection project complies with the Department’s Part 3704 Rules. Section 3704.70 specifically prohibits the conversion of public waters to private land by filling; however fill material may be placed in public waters for such things as bank, shore or bluff protection and beach nourishment. Section 3704.80(a) specifies that the proposed activity must not: 1) cause an obstruction to, or interference with, the navigability of a public body of water, 2) result in an encroachment on a public body of water, 3) cause an impairment of any rights, interests or uses of the public in any public body of water or to its natural resources, and 4) cause bank or shoreline instability on other properties. Section 3704(b) outlines the additional information an applicant should submit if the proposed activity might cause one or more of these impacts. Section 3704.90 contains the standards the Department uses to determine whether a permit should be issued.

To assist the applicant in providing the information needed for IDNR/OWR personnel to evaluate proposed projects for compliance with the Part 3704 Rules, the following additional guidance is provided for the two primary categories of shore protection projects.

Shore Parallel Revetments and Bulkheads:

  • The structure should be located as close to the existing toe of the bluff as is practicable.

Shore Perpendicular or Offshore Structures:

  • Proposed offshore structures should be located as close to shore as possible and be no larger than needed to protect the applicant’s property.
  • The size of the structure including height, length, etc. should be comparable to adjoining structures in the area.
  • Where possible, the project should provide some type of reasonable access over or around it on the landward side.

When preparing additional supporting information for the application, the following basic plans and information should be provided for all projects:

  • An evaluation of the project’s potential impact on public uses in the affected area, including boating, swimming, wading and fishing.
  • An evaluation of the project’s potential impact on the natural resources of the nearshore area, including at a minimum, fisheries, waterfowl, wildlife and vegetation.
  • A descriptive or narrative explanation of any project components that will minimize, mitigate or offset any project induced negative impact.
  • A description of the volume and composition of the material to be placed should be provided, showing that the materials to be used consist of clean material, e.g., steel, wood, poured or pre-cast concrete, stone.
  • A scaled vicinity map showing the site of the project, the location of Lake Michigan, any nearby harbors, community borders, existing lakeshore structures, beaches, water intake plants, roadways or any other identifiable locations, a graphic or numerical scale and a north arrow.
  • A scaled plan view of the site showing existing and proposed conditions, including dimensions of the work or structure, grade changes, adjacent property lines and ownership, graphic or numerical scale and a north arrow.
  • As many scaled cross-sections as needed to represent the proposed project. These cross-sections should show existing and proposed conditions including dimensions of the structure, grade changes, and both horizontal and vertical graphic or numerical scales.
  • All plans should clearly delineate the Ordinary High Water Mark of 581.5 IGLD-85 and verify the datum being used.
  • A detailed explanation of the purpose and need of the proposed project.
  • A stabilization plan for all disturbed areas.

As a general principle, shore perpendicular or offshore structures have the ability to trap sand from the littoral drift. To assist in the evaluation of whether a proposed structure will result in bank or shoreline instability on other properties, applications for these types of projects should include the following information:

  • If the structure is not comparable with other structures in the area or if no other structures exist in the area, an analysis of the proposed structure on the wave climate and impacts to the movement of sand (littoral drift) should be undertaken. Professionals with experience in this area should be utilized for this work.
  • To ensure that these types of projects will not trap sand moving along the shoreline (littoral drift), the project should include the placement of clean sand in an amount equal to 120% of its potential capacity to retain sand. The grain size of the sand to be placed should be compatible with the natural sand and be of equal or larger grain size. Volume calculations should be included with the application submittal.
  • Perpendicular or parallel shore protection structures with the ability to trap littoral sediments will be expected to show, by survey, that the completed project is not trapping littoral drift sand.

A pre-construction survey should be completed just before construction begins. One post-construction survey should be completed as soon as construction has been completed, preferably within one month. A second post-construction survey should be completed approximately one year after the date of the first post-construction survey.

If the second post-construction survey indicates that the project appears to be trapping littoral drift sand, the Department will determine, on a case-by-case basis, what additional action, if any, may be required. This could include a requirement to undertake additional surveys to better ascertain the impact of the project and/or the placement of additional sand as mitigation.

Upon receipt of an application, an initial review will determine the need for clarification, or additional information, if any. At the same time, the applications are forwarded to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Office of Realty and Environmental Planning for their review. The applicant is responsible for contacting the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency for any requirements they may have.

If the initial review determines that a project will not require a permit, the Department will inform the applicant by letter.

If a project requires a Regular Permit, a public notice will be issued. For shore protection projects, the minimum public notice period will be 28 days. This public notice period may be extended if needed to allow interested parties the opportunity to prepare and submit comments. The purpose of the public notice is to solicit comments on the project from interested parties, including property owners, local, state and federal government agencies and officials as well as the general public. To ensure that adequate notice is provided to adjacent property owners, the Department requires that the names, addresses, and phone numbers of at least three north and ten south adjacent property owners to the project be sent a public notice. Objections received during the public notice period are provided to the applicant for comment and possible resolution.

Once the Department has received all the required information including public notice comments and responses, it will determine whether the proposed project is in compliance with the provisions of our Part 3704 Rules. If the project is found to be in compliance with these rules, an IDNR/OWR Permit will be issued. If it is found not to be in compliance with the Part 3704 Rules, a denial letter will be issued. All denials are issued without prejudice and include a detailed explanation.


Historical Shoreline Change


Coastal engineering has altered or influenced changes along nearly all of the 63 miles (101 km) of the Illinois coast. The only remaining shoreline segments that are free of any shore-protection structures are a three mile (5 km) reach in the South Unit of Illinois Beach State Park and adjoining shore to the south as well as a few isolated locations along the bluff coast. The most extensive historical shoreline change along the Illinois coast has occurred along the Chicago shoreline. Other areas of major historical shoreline change along the Illinois coast are at the north and south ends of the Zion beach-ridge plain respectively near North Point Marina and Waukegan Harbor, and the area at and near Lake Calumet.

Chicago Lakeshore

Shoreline change along the Chicago lakeshore began in 1833 with the entrapment of littoral sand against the north jetty at the Chicago River mouth. By 1869, nearly 70 acres of sand accumulation had occurred north of the north jetty. In the late 1800s, there was continued filling to make land in the vicinity of the Chicago River mouth primarily for rail and maritime commerce. There was also growing interest in making new land for lakeshore parks. Chicago has a unique history among coastal cities in the planning and execution of extensive projects to build new shore land and shape the urban shoreline for public use. The building of a park-dominated shoreline required constructing a new shoreline further in the lake, armoring this shoreline to prevent erosion, and building harbors and beaches at select locations. More than 5.5 square miles (14 km2) of Chicago’s lakefront land resulted from the late 19th and early 20th century lakeshore construction. Nearly all of the fill material was sand or clay either mined from the lake bottom or from dune deposits along the Indiana shore. A second generation of lakeshore construction began in the 1990s. This was needed to replace the original generation of timber and stone shore protection with steel sheetpile and reinforced concrete. Read this interesting shoreline history.

North Point Marina Vicinity

North Point Marina is a state-owned and operated, 1500-slip marina on the Lake Michigan shore just south of the Illinois-Wisconsin state line. The marina was constructed between 1987-1989. It is built along a shoreline that has the most severe erosion recorded along the Illinois coast. Shoreline recession has occurred at a long-term average rate of about 10 feet (3 m) per year. Prior to the State of Illinois acquiring this land in the 1970s, private residential property occupied the area.

Waukegan Harbor Vicinity

Contrasting with the net erosion at the north end of the Zion beach-ridge plain near North Point Marina is the net accretion near the south end of the sand plain in the vicinity of Waukegan Harbor. The USACE became involved in constructing a harbor at Waukegan in 1852 and completed a harbor project in the 1880s. The present harbor footprint results from expansion and reconstruction that occurred between 1902 and 1906 and additional improvements built between 1930 and 1932. In 1984, the municipal Waukegan Marina was constructed on the south side of the original harbor complex.

Lake Calumet Vicinity

Lake Calumet and the surrounding Calumet area have had substantial shoreline, river line and wetland modification as the landscape of this area was shaped and reshaped for industry, commerce and port facilities. Filling on the perimeter of Lake Calumet has reduced the present (1997) lake area to about 52 percent of what existed in the late 1890s. Filling has occurred on the margins of Wolf Lake, and all of former nearby Hyde Lake has been filled. River engineering has straightened and repositioned segments of the Calumet River. Unlike much of the filling along the Chicago lakefront which used sand and clay, slag from steel mills was a major component in much of the filling in the Calumet area.

Other Notable Shoreline Modifications

The lakeshore municipalities north of Chicago each have municipal parks and beaches along the shore. Many also have waterworks facilities, several of which are adjacent to parkland. Limited usable land at the base of the bluffs resulted in lake filling for parks or public utilities. These are typically localized shoreline modifications that are no more than a few acres. The following describes the three largest lake fillings north of Chicago.

  • Evanston - Northwestern University: Lakefilling for the construction of 73 acres of new land for the campus of Northwestern University occurred in the 1960s.
  • Wilmette – Gillson Park: The 1907-1909 excavation of the North Shore Channel provided clay fill for construction of about 30 acres of land for Gillson Park.
  • Forest Park – Forest Park Beach: This 22-acre park facility completed in 1987 includes a system of offshore breakwaters, beach cells, boat basin, parking and parkland.

Chicago Stepped Revetment

One of Chicago’s most unique attributes is its 30 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, nearly all of which is publicly owned. Most of the shoreline was built on fill, which required structures to hold and protect the fill. The Chicago stepped revetments serve that purpose and provide a means of public access along the water's edge. The lakefront also features several wide groins and a concrete promenade called a paved beach.

Some of the existing shore protection structures, built in the early 1900s, are no longer structurally functioning. Without intervention, about 11 miles of structures would have failed. The Chicago Shoreline Protection Project involves reconstructing revetments to prevent storm damage to a $5 billion infrastructure. Between the Chicago District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the local sponsors, the City of Chicago and the Chicago Park District, construction of several portions of the shoreline have already been completed, including reconstruction of a breakwater protecting a water purification plant serving 2.5 million people. Construction of the $301 million project is currently scheduled to extend until at least 2015. More info.

The Corps of Engineers is also studying storm damage problems along the Lake Michigan shoreline between Waukegan and Wilmette harbors in Illinois and providing beach fill along the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Several smaller erosion protection and/or ecosystem restoration projects throughout the Chicago and Northwest Indiana area are also underway.

At the far north end of the Illinois coast, Illinois Beach State Park preserves the last remaining reach of unarmored shoreline in the state, and also preserves a setting of low dunes and marsh providing a unique window to the past lakeshore setting on which Chicago was built. However, beach erosion at Illinois Beach State Park in Zion has been ongoing ever since North Point Marina and another marina just into Wisconsin began trapping the natural movement of sand south along the shoreline. To attempt to address this, in January 2014 Gov. Pat Quinn announced $1.3 million for stabilization to prevent a parking lot from being swallowed by Lake Michigan, reduction of erosion with a man-made reef and moving sand to the north end of the site.

The Fiscal Year 2017 Civil Works Budget for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers provides $4.62 billion in gross discretionary funding for the Civil Works program. This budget lists proposed projects and the associated budget justification by state.

Public Education Program

Living on the Coast, from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, describes how natural processes affect the coast, including changes in lake levels, storms and storm surges, waves and wave climate, transport of sediment, ice on the shore, shoreline erosion, lakebed erosion, and movement of water on the land. The booklet also describes how to protect coastal investments by adapting to natural processes, restoring a natural shoreline, moderating coastal erosion, armoring the shore, stabilizing bluffs and banks, controlling surface water and groundwater, building environmentally friendly shore protection structures, and working with engineers and contractors. The final section covers risk management and the economics of protecting your coastal investment, including shoreline property features and value, government regulations to protect a coastal investment, costs of shore protection, and accounting for climate change.


Michael J. Chrzastowski
ICMP Coastal Resource Coordinator
Senior Coastal Geologist
IDNR, Illinois State Geological Survey
Phone: 217-244-2194

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