Although the dropping water levels of Lake Michigan have appeared to stabilize for the time being, the positive effects of the exposure of Great Lakes bottomlands are still being seen in Chicago. Dune plants that have not been found in the city for decades continue to spring up along the shoreline.
Near 79th Street and the lakefront, you will find Rainbow Beach, one of the city’s largest public beaches. Rainbow is now also host to the largest dune restoration site in the city, and neighborhood residents are getting in on the act! The Lake Michigan Federation (Federation) partnered with the Chicago Park District (CPD) to acquire federal funding to pay for the coastal restoration project. After sorting through property ownership issues in 2003, CPD began herbiciding select plant populations on the site to give the incoming dune species a fighting chance.
This spring volunteers were finally able to access the site and begin the planting process. Students from two area high schools, working in conjunction with the Federation’s Adopt-a-Beach program, got out of the classroom and onto the sand to help bring a slice of dune habitat back to the Chicago shoreline. After hearing a talk about changing lake levels and the scarcity of these types of habitats and plants in Illinois, the kids got their hands dirty and started to dig in marram grass, prickly pear cactus, and other plants commonly found in dunes around the southern Lake Michigan basin. Nature Conservancy staff helped out by providing local dune plant stock sourced from preserves in Indiana.
The students’ journal entries after the event were illuminating. A few made comments such as “I never knew that plants can grow and be planted in the sand,” suggesting that the understanding of the value of Great Lakes dunes does not always run deep. But on a positive note, a student mentioned that”…to my surprise, I did enjoy planting plants. I usually don’t like doing this, but since I knew it was for a good cause, I had a change of heart.”