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Lake Michigan Is Winning Attack on Chicago

As storm waves threaten billions in prime lake-shore real estate, city and federal officials joust over repairs

CHICAGO, the ``City of the Big Shoulders,'' has become shaky at the knees as storm waves as big as railway freight cars destroy the revetments protecting billions of dollars in property along Lake Michigan.

``There is extensive damage, and we very urgently need to make major repairs,'' says Ken Davis, spokesman for the city's Department of Environment.

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The waves have hammered apart breakwaters along eight miles of shoreline, imperiling about $10 billion in premium property. They have dug out underwater grottoes 20-feet deep under some revetments, clawed within 50 feet of Lakeshore Drive, and ripped apart a breakwater protecting a plant that filters drinking water for 2 million people, says Mr. Davis.

``All the experts seem to agree that if we get another big storm like in 1988, the filtration plant could be flooded,'' he says.

``The lake shore is Chicago's greatest physical asset, and it's in jeopardy,'' according to Davis.

The city and federal governments differ over how to share the cost of a $192 million, 12-year project to build steel sheet pilings reinforced by smoothed rock along the lake shore. The wrangle typifies the sort of financial tensions flaring between the federal government and cities during tight budgetary times.

City Hall maintains that the federal government pay 65 percent of the project's cost. But the Army Corps of Engineers has offered to pay 65 percent of construction of a rubble mound along the lake shore and 50 percent of the added cost of sinking steel-sheet pilings, says Henry Henderson, commissioner of the city Department of the Environment.

The corps is mandated to endorse the cheapest form of lake-shore protection - the rubble mound, says Michael Fisher of the corps's Chicago planning department. City Hall maintains, however, that the federal government has a significant stake in the shore that it should affirm through cost-sharing.

``There's a demonstrated, overwhelming federal interest in the protection of our shoreline,'' Mr. Henderson says. Lakeshore Drive is a vital artery for the regional economy. Should the lake shore be inadequately reinforced, US taxpayers would bear much of the cost from storm damage, he adds. ``For a whole range of reasons - from aesthetic, to financial, to the simple historic value of an American resource - the federal government needs'' to share adequately in the project's cost.

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The Illinois congressional delegation backs Chicago's claim. The $192 million project is due to go before Congress within a month, Henderson says.

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