UPTOWN — Jason Margolis has only lived in Chicago since June, but even he can tell just how much of the Montrose Dog Beach has been lost to Lake Michigan.
“Last summer, this area was a good 3 feet lower,” Margolis said, pointing to a back portion of the dog beach, where sand has covered the infrastructure meant to keep dogs in the beach area. “I was desperately hoping it would be dug back out, but it hasn’t.”
Like other areas near Chicago’s lakefront, the Montrose Dog Beach has been almost entirely lost to a rising Lake Michigan. Sitting at record levels, the lake has left only a sliver of beachfront at the popular Uptown destination, and winter storms have blown sand over fences and other beach infrastructure while leaving the remaining beach space covered in lake debris.
A fence that separated the dog beach from the people beach shows just how much beachfront has been lost to the lake. Previously, only a few fence posts jutted out into the water, keeping dogs on their side of the beach. Now, at least 17 fence posts are in the lake, with much of the fence left dangling in the lake water.
The disappearing dog beach — once voted the best dog beach in the country – has concerned some of its regulars. With so little beachfront remaining, the dog beach is sure to get overcrowded in the summer, they said.
Currently, nothing is keeping dogs from going to the human side of the beach, which is a ticketable offense and is regularly enforced on busy summer days, said Paul Fehrenbacher, a member of the Mondog, the volunteer board that acts as steward of the dog beach.
“When we reach summer, there will be enough beach to call it a dog beach,” Fehrenbacher said. “But it won’t be the experience people are used to.”
City officials are working on a plan to protect the beach — including the possibility of expanding the dog beach to make up for lost space.
Ald. James Cappleman (46th) is looking into moving the fence further south into the regular beach and giving dogs more space to stretch their legs, said Tressa Feher, Cappleman’s chief of staff. More urgently, the alderman’s office is also working with the Chicago Park District to repair the fence meant to divide the dog and human beaches.
“We’re a little bit concerned,” Feher said. “We love that beach. It brings people here [to Uptown]. We want to do whatever we can to preserve it.”
The Park District is working on a shoreline assessment study to determine what areas of the lakefront need repairs most urgently, and the Montrose Dog Beach is part of that study, a spokesperson for the district said.
“This beach is part of a larger shoreline assessment study that the Park District has been working on since August 2019,” Irene Tostado, a park district spokeswoman, said in a statement. “The overarching goal is to guide the Park District in the long-term stewardship of this wonderful asset.”
Montrose Dog Beach will have to vie for repair funds with other popular lakefront destinations that have been impacted by a rising Lake Michigan.
The lake has been rising steadily since 2013, altering beaches and other lakefront areas in the process. The Foster Avenue Dog Beach was lost to the lake in 2016.
Beachfront loss and erosion has become a bigger problem this winter as near-record lake levels and damaging waves from storms wreaked havoc on the lakefront.
In Rogers Park, three beaches have been lost to the lake, replaced by rock walls meant to fortify the lakefront from further erosion. A historic South Shore apartment building and other infrastructure have been repeatedly flooded by the lake this winter.
The problem caused Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Gov. JB Pritzker to declare the lakefront a state emergency. The move means the state can now use its resources and funding to help in repairs — and ask the federal government for more help.
Patrons of the dog beach are hoping something can be done to repair the area by summer.
Currently, the dog beach is covered in “lake balls,” or chunks of lake debris and ice washed ashore by waves.
“Honestly, the beach looked like a hellscape,” said Courtney Reid, who visits the beach every morning at sunrise. “The shape of the beach has changed drastically. In the summer, it will be a problem.”
The situation at the dog beach could get worse as more winter storms could bash the lakefront. Lake Michigan’s water levels are expected to rise through the summer, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The Montrose Dog Beach was made possible because of previous low lake levels, which made the small boat launch at the site too shallow. Lake levels are cyclical, although city officials have said climate change has played a role in the lake going from record low levels in 2013 to record highs now.
Neighbors are waiting to see just how much of the dog beach is lost to the lake this winter while hoping something can be done to improve the popular lakefront attraction.
“It’s amazing if you have a dog,” said Margolis, who moved from New York City to Lakeview last summer. “This is one of my favorite parts of the city.”
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