Lake Erie's surging water levels imperil property values, tourism
More flooding and erosion — which affects everything from water quality to property values and tourism — are expected in the Great Lakes region this spring as water levels continue their rapid rise after a 14-year low.
That’s especially true in the western Lake Erie region, the shallowest, most biologically dynamic, and one of the most susceptible areas to climate change.
But that’s the thing about water levels: There’s almost always some natural fluctuation. Like other regions of the world, scientists are caught between figuring out what’s normal and what’s increasingly peculiar as Earth’s temperatures continue to warm and the planet’s entire climate continues to get more erratic.
And what happens on the Canadian side of Lake Superior each winter can have a direct effect on how much water Lake Erie gets hundreds of miles away the following summer.
Drew Gronewold, a hydrology expert at the University of Michigan, is among those buying into the concept that something weird’s happening now.
Records dating well back into the 1800s show several periods of high- and low-water eras. But the variances often have been spaced 20 or more years apart.
Water levels typically rise each spring, of course, as snow melts and rain tends to be heavy in April. But the seasonal pattern for Lake Erie over several years now has consistently been about a month ahead of schedule — a trend Mr. Gronewold said is “absolutely” consistent with climate change modeling.
“When you look at the data, that seasonal peak and decline looks like you’ve shifted them a month earlier,” said Mr. Gronewold, who spent years studying lake levels at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor before joining the UM faculty.
The latest weekly report from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shows Lake Erie was up 27 inches over its long-term monthly average for May. On May 3, the lake was an inch above its highest monthly average recorded for that month, established in 1986.
The rapid turnaround for all Great Lakes began in 2013.
Over those past six years, lake levels have been back on an upward trajectory after crashing in 1999 and plummeting to record or near-record lows the next 14 years.
Boats were stuck in some marinas that had gotten used to higher-than-normal water levels since about the 1970s. One clear benefit emerged from that low-water era: More beachfront property. But that, of course, led to more courtroom drama in states such as Michigan and Ohio where many people were confused about where the new lines were between private and public land.
From 2013 to 2016, Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, and Lake Huron, which greatly influence water levels of Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, and the St. Lawrence River, established the fastest three-year rise in recorded history, Mr. Gronewold said.
“The Great Lakes are a perfect example of where effects from the [wobbly] jet stream and the polar vortex can be exacerbated,” he said.
A 2014 paper Mr. Gronewold co-authored with NOAA’s Craig Stow also shows Lake Erie had one of its most fickle years earlier this decade, when its water level rose at an unprecedented rate from February to June of 2011, then had “the longest continuous decline in monthly water levels ever recorded on Lake Erie” from December, 2011 to October, 2012.
Lake levels rarely swing to both extremes in the same year.
Factors driving the shifts, such as higher rain-to-snow ratios and increasing fall evaporation rates, were “consistent with climate change expectations,” but the quick about-face in extremes took researchers by surprise, according to their paper.
Scudder Mackay, chief of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources office of coastal management, said the entire Great Lakes system is saturated with water and has “persistent green blobs all over” this spring.
“All of the Great Lakes are very high,” he said. “We’ve had high water here in Lake Erie. There’s more flooding and potential erosion damage.”
He said half to two-thirds of the parking lot at the Ohio DNR building that he works in Sandusky has had standing water much of this spring. The Corps has been sending out field technical teams to Lake Ontario in upstate New York to assess erosion damage there, and the Ohio DNR is keeping a close eye on erosion along high bluffs in northeast Ohio, he said.
“We’re getting increased calls with erosion,” Mr. Mackay said. “We’re seeing an uptick.”
Over the past year, the Ohio DNR has received 98 applications from landowners seeking permits to install temporary shore structures, such as rocks, to help stabilize their property. Seventy-eight have been granted, four or five have been rejected, and the remaining are under review, he said.
Mr. Mackay also said the shift toward wetter springs is consistent with climate modeling presented at U.S.-Canada International Joint Commission hearings for the Upper Great Lakes in recent years. Those models also predict late summers falling into drought or near-drought conditions in this part of the country on a more regular basis.
Some western Lake Erie farmers interviewed recently have said that’s a worst-case “double-whammy” for them, getting springs so wet that crop-planting gets pushed back on one end and a reduced yield on the other when late summers become too dry.
A difficult thing for the public to grasp about climate change is the variability of it. It’s not necessary always synonymous with global warming, in that there can be colder winters and hotter summers in various parts of the world, Mr. Mackay said.
“I think this is what we’re going to see, more variability,” he said.
Records show the Midwest is second only to New England with a 42 percent increase in storms dropping three inches or more of rain within 24 hours since the 1950s.
More frequent and intense storms create more algae problems because of the phosphorus, nitrogen, and other nutrients being washed off farm surfaces and through their drainage tiles. But Mr. Mackay also has been a long proponent of keeping an eye on erosion as an underrated source of water pollution, because of the nutrients held by many types of land.
“Anytime the [Maumee] River looks like chocolate milk, that’s an indicator of runoff and how much phosphorus is getting into the water,” Joe Cappel, Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority vice president of business development, said.
This spring’s intense storms have left a lot of woody debris along shorelines and in shallow parts of western Lake Erie, too, Mr. Mackay said.
“Boaters in particular need to be acutely aware there may be more logs in the water now,” he said. “Keep your eye out for debris in the water.”
Larry Fletcher, Lake Erie Shores & Islands president, said he’s noticed several temporary road closures because of high water in Port Clinton and Sandusky this spring, as well as a number of small craft advisories out on the water.
In April, strong winds pushed high lake water over a seawall in downtown Put-in-Bay, temporarily dividing South Bass Island into two islands, according to a website maintained by the Put-in-Bay Visitors and Convention Bureau.
Passage into the village from the eastern part of the island required a canoe, kayak, or at least a high-standing, all-terrain vehicle to get over water standing above lawns and streets. Ferries were temporarily grounded. Homes, businesses, and parks took on high water. One unidentified resident told the bureau it was the worst flooding he’d seen in his 40 years there.
Island residents wished it was some sort of an April Fool’s joke being played out in the middle of that month, according to the website.
“Unfortunately, it’s not,” it read.
High water isn’t the only enemy of Lake Erie shoreline residents.
According to Ohio Sea Grant, the lake’s bowl shape allows strong and sustained winds from the northeast to cause rapid flooding by what are known as seiche waves, which can significantly push water up within hours. Seiche waves subside when the wind dies or blows in another direction. The phenomenon is akin to the sloshing of milk in a cereal bowl when it’s tipped one way or another.
An Ohio DNR news release issued late Friday amplified concerns about northeasterly winds and seiche waves exacerbating the potential for more flooding and erosion.
“High water levels increase the chance of flooding in low-lying coastal areas, especially during wind-driven seiche events. The combination of waves and high water can cause severe coastal erosion during these events,” the release read, adding the western basin is “subject to increased flooding and inundation,” while the entire Lake Erie coastline could face “increased or catastrophic erosion during severe storm events.”
“There’s more flooding this year than I can remember,” Mr. Fletcher said, adding that excessively high water can affect shoreline property values.
The threat has continued well into May, and is more than a month from subsiding.
According to the website putinbaydaily.com, another round of northeasterly winds has been battering the islands this week and a lakeshore flood warning remained in effect until 8 a.m. Thursday. Miller Boat Line said on its Facebook page that its ferries were still operating but that “conditions are worsening and we are on a trip-by-trip basis.” It said it would post updates on its Facebook, Twitter, and company website pages.
Billy Market, Miller Boat Line co-owner and operator, said Saturday that ferry service would be iffy again on Sunday and possibly the next couple of days because of more northeasterly winds of 20 to 30 mph in the forecast. By Sunday, the company posted on Facebook the ferries are “running their schedules as best as they can under current high water conditions” while Lucas, Erie, Ottawa, and Sandusky counties were under a flood watch until 10 p.m.
“It is on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “You can’t expect people to walk through two to three feet of water to get to the docks.”
The ferry service usually sees water levels peak the third week of June, then gradually recede, Mr. Market said.
Still, much of the high water remains in Port Clinton and on both South Bass Island and Middle Bass Island.
“We’ve got a good month ahead of it. We’re struggling through it,” Mr. Market said. “It’s been a dismal spring.”
This year’s erratic spring weather has slowed down efforts to get boats moved into marinas, too, Mr. Fletcher said.
“We’ve got a resilient tourism economy overall. But if you’re a boater or want to go to the beach, those things are definitely going to be affected,” he said.
Melinda Huntley, Ohio Travel Association executive director, said there haven’t been many studies done on what, if any, correlation exists between lake levels and tourism. Visitors appear to keep coming and businesses do their best to adapt, hoping it all evens out in the long run, she said.
“It’s the cycle of nature,” she said. “That’s one thing that makes the lake so interesting.”
Low lake levels can hurt the region’s economy by forcing ships to carry less cargo per trip.
But too much can be bad, too.
Mr. Cappel said high water can impact currents along the Maumee River and other parts of the Toledo shipping channel.
One oceangoing vessel recently made the costly decision to remain docked for several days at The Andersons’ terminal after loading up grain there. Its captain determined there was too much high water, heavy rain, and wind causing unpredictability with the current, Mr. Cappel said.
“Safety always comes first,” he said. “You just want to err on the side of caution.”
Although Toledo’s shipping channel is the Great Lakes region’s shallowest, the port authority relies more on annual dredging by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers than high water. Only about 10 percent of the Great Lakes region ships are ocean-bound vessels known as salties. Mr. Cappel said their biggest need for more water is through the Welland Canal in Ontario, which ships use to get between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario in order to bypass Niagara Falls.
Ninety percent are ships known as lakers, which never leave the Great Lakes.
Toledo — being the shallowest port — will likely have as much dredging done with high water this summer, Mr. Cappel said.
The Corps is allowed by permit to dredge up to 1.2 million cubic yards of sediment each summer, enough to fill Toledo’s tallest skyscraper three times.
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