The life of Lake Erie is full of ups and downs

COLUMBUS – Lake Erie water levels are expected to remain 5 to 12 inches below their long-term averages during the coming spring and summer.

But the ups and downs of water levels are a normal part of Lake Erie’s life cycle, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

“In reality, Lake Erie is a dynamic, constantly changing body of water,” said Dave Cashell, department state hydrologist. “In the mid-1930s, the lake was nearly 2 feet below its present level. In the 1950s and again in the 1980s, it was more than 3 feet higher than its present level.

“We must realize that change is inevitable when dealing with Lake Erie and adapt our plans and outlooks accordingly.”

Land owners think otherwise.

Some lakefront property owners and business people who grew accustomed to consistently higher-than-average water levels during the last 30 years may find that news difficult to accept.

For them, lower water levels translate into reduced shipping revenues and difficult-to-enter marinas and boat slips.

But Ohio’s natural resources experts encourage people concerned about present water levels to take a page from Great Lakes history before concluding that Lake Erie is suffering some sort of decline.

Historical perspective.

Officials first began measuring water levels in the Great Lakes in the mid-1800s. The present system of gauges began operating in 1918. Hydrologists have learned that lake levels fluctuate with the seasons and can vary dramatically over longer periods of time.

Long-term monthly averages have varied more than 6 feet over the period of time records have been kept. Water levels were slightly above long-term averages during the mid-to-late 1800s and generally below the long-term averages from about 1890 through 1967.

From 1968 to 1999, levels were again generally above long-term averages.

Annually, the lake also rises and falls about 18 inches with the seasons – losing water in the fall and winter through evaporation, and gaining water back during spring snowmelt and summer rains.

Winds of change.

Short-term fluctuations, such as those that can be associated with a single severe storm, are the most dramatic changes.

Because the lake is relatively shallow and lies southwest to northeast, strong southwesterly winds can blow surface water from Lake Erie’s western basin to the central and eastern basins in a matter of hours. Veteran boaters know that a storm passing through Toledo can leave dock areas standing dry in that city while creating high-water conditions in Buffalo, N.Y.

During severe storm events, the instantaneous difference in water levels between Toledo and Buffalo can approach 16 feet.

Big bathtubs.

Cashell describes the Great Lakes system as interconnected “bathtubs,” with each lake lower than the next. Within each lake, waters slosh around in response to changes in wind and atmospheric pressure.

Lake Superior, at about 603 feet above sea level, is the highest. It drains into Lake Huron and Lake Michigan (considered one body of water), which in turn, drain into Lake St. Clair through the St. Clair River.

Lake St. Clair drains into Lake Erie through the Detroit River. Lake Erie waters drop dramatically (about 326 feet in 35 miles) into Lake Ontario through the Niagara River and over Niagara Falls.

Lake Ontario waters travel downhill through the St. Lawrence Seaway into Montreal Harbour and the Atlantic Ocean.

About 80 percent of Lake Erie’s water flows in from the Upper Lakes through the Detroit River. Another 10 percent comes from tributary rivers and streams, with the remaining 10 percent from precipitation falling on the lake’s surface.

The Detroit River inflow is directly dependent on rain and snowfall around lakes Superior, Huron and Michigan. Unusually warm winters and dry summers in the late 1990s brought little precipitation and virtually no ice cover to the Upper Lakes, causing lake water levels to drop in those bodies of water, and subsequently, in Lake Erie.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which projects Great Lakes water levels six months in advance, said in February that Lake Superior was approaching levels last seen in 1926. The recent winter did not provide enough moisture to counter all the preceding dry years.

Despite “urban legends” to the contrary, there are no man-made gates regulating the outflow of Lake Erie waters through the Niagara River. Only lakes Superior and Ontario have artificial controls to influence levels and those levels are governed by agreements with Canada, Cashell said.

Silver lining.

Lower-than-average water levels have a positive impact on many aspects of lake life. Coastal erosion has decreased and beachcombers are finding wider stretches of sand for swimming and sunbathing, according to Mike Colvin of the department’s Coastal Management Program.

“The lake’s shoreline provides some of the best bird watching in the Midwest,” said Melissa Hathaway of the Ohio Division of Wildlife’s Lake Erie Unit. “The lower lake levels only enhance these viewing opportunities.”

Jim McCormac, a botanist and bird expert with ODNR’s Division of Natural Areas & Preserves, said North American shorebirds with the longest migration patterns like the Hudsonian godwit and long-billed dowitcher are spending more time along Ohio’s Lake Erie shore in the fall. The birds feed in the expanding marshes, building stamina for their long flights south.

New expanses of rare and endangered botanicals are finding homes in the mudflats created by lower lake levels. Most are sedges and rushes – some of the rarest plants in the Great Lakes region, McCormac added.

“They grow, bear fruit and reseed on the newly exposed mud flats,” McCormac said. “When the waters recover them, those seed beds will remain dormant for decades before producing another plant. They are an important part of the biological and hydrological cycle of Lake Erie.”

If you’re boating.

Boaters should check for the best launch areas when planning a lake outing and use charts when navigating unfamiliar waters.

Boaters should be especially cautious around the islands in the western basin and when nearing shore. Areas that may have been safe to pass over in the past, may have an underwater hazard in low-water conditions.

Navigation charts for Lake Erie are available at marinas, bait shops and other outlets on the north coast.

For more information about Lake Erie’s changing waters, check the ODNR Web site at www.dnr.state.oh.us or call the ODNR Coastal Services Center at 419-626-4296 or toll free at 888-644-6267.

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