Above and beyond

Shoreline rescue project provides model for innovative thinking in environmental protection

The benefit of a $73 million project at the Illinois Beach State Park in Zion isn’t just that it could help prevent the park’s 6.5 miles of shoreline from receding by 100 feet a year. It’s also that it may help provide models for the success of other environmental projects around the state and elsewhere.

The project, being funded from the state’s $45 billion Rebuild Illinois infrastructure program established in 2019, aims to stem the erosion and provide habitats for natural wildlife, while maintaining the area for human access and use. While a substantial amount of the work has been completed on the park’s north and south ends, much of the beach protection remains to be completed this summer.

When finished, the shoreline will feature 22 breakwater structures that, according to the spokesperson for the effort, will “renourish the existing sandy beach” and protect it from the impact of Lake Michigan’s relentless waves.

That’s an important objective, but also significant is the nature of the project’s design, which has earned it special certification from a prominent New York-based water infrastructure advocacy group known as The Waterfront Alliance. The state park represents the first freshwater project to meet the standards of the alliance’s Waterfront Edge Design Guidelines, or WEDG. In so doing, designers and engineers provide a model not just for shore erosion efforts, but, really, for any environmental restoration or protection project.

In a Capitol News Illinois story this week,” Joseph Sutkowi, Waterfront Alliance’s chief waterfront design officer, said the Illinois Beach State Park designers developed ecological features that moved beyond “just a typical breakwaters project, which is often not that environmentally beneficial.”

Lauren Grenlund, a spokesperson for the state’s Capital Development Board, which is overseeing the project, told CNI that that kind of thinking “stands out among other waterfront projects as a leader that goes above and beyond standard environmental and regulatory requirements and provides a broad community benefit.”

When it’s complete, the park will have, in addition to a protected shoreline, habitat spaces with built-in nests for migratory shorebirds and protections for a wide range of animals and birds, including endangered species like the common tern and piping plover as well as other migratory birds. Then, using driftwood and sunken trees, natural barriers will be constructed between the breakwater structures and the beach to protect the new habitats while balancing human access to the site.

To achieve its WEDG certification, the project had to score 130 points out of a possible 200 in a variety of categories. Illinois Beach’s project scored 146 and earned a perfect score for “innovation.”

That kind of performance serves as a measure of reassurance for Illinoisans that we are getting something worthwhile for our $73 million. And perhaps even more importantly, it shows what can be done when planners think beyond typical renovation parameters and provides an example of how to do it.

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