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Unprecedented drop in Lake Erie’s water level causes headaches

If you’re a boater, it might have hit home when you scraped the bottom off your vessel. As a beachcomber, you might have noticed more nooks to explore around rocks and piers.

And if you’re a lakeside homeowner?

You might have realized your beach is now bigger.

A whole lot bigger.

That’s what happened to Richard Zanett, who has lived in his family’s home in Grandview Bay in Angola-on-the-Lake for 66 years.

Zanett and his wife, Donna, now watch sunsets over a beach that’s roughly double the size it used to be.

“More beach to maintain,” Donna Zanett said pragmatically.

Here’s the situation about the water level of Lake Erie, which had dropped every month in 2012 before rebounding slightly this year.

Lake Erie’s water level measurement in Buffalo is down about a foot and a half from where it was in January 2012.

That’s an equivalent of the water from about 4.7 million Olympic-sized swimming pools being taken out of Lake Erie.

Low levels are occurring throughout the Great Lakes, and for two main reasons: an underwhelming previous winter of 2011-12 followed by last year’s early spring and prolonged hot and dry summer.

And while Lake Erie has rebounded somewhat this year, the lake level does matter and will affect you.

That’s the opinion of environmental experts and lake industry professionals who point out that the depth of the lake drives international commerce, recreational opportunities and more.

“Mother Nature giveth,” said Glen Nekvasil, vice president of the Lake Carriers Association in Rocky River, Ohio, “and Mother Nature taketh away.”

Up to this point, the drop in the water level has seemed to amount to more of an economic conundrum than an ecological one, according to scientists.

That’s little consolation for folks who rely on the water for commerce, science or recreation.

Watercraft aground

It’s not unusual these days to watch boaters jumping overboard to push their watercrafts over a sandbar and into the lake, said Rich Davenport, a fisherman from North Tonawanda.

“Trying to get out of Sturgeon Point was a joke,” Davenport said of last year’s combined low water level and a lack of harbor dredging. “Unless you had a 14-foot canoe, you weren’t getting out.”

No matter where you travel along the shore, the stains from days of higher water levels are marked everywhere.

Timbers in the pier at the harbor in Dunkirk. The shoreline riprap in Angola. The concrete wall at Hoak’s Lakeshore Restaurant in Hamburg. And the side of the Union Ship Canal in Lackawanna.

At SUNY Buffalo State’s Great Lakes Center at the foot of Porter Avenue, scientists often can’t even launch their new 28-foot boat, Privateer, into the Black Rock Channel.

“We’re having problems getting our boat out,” said Mark D. Clapsadl, the center’s field station manager.

Waters once lapped over the concrete launch’s descent into the canal.

Now, that pad, along with a couple of feet of stone at the end of the launch, is dry as a bone. Then, there’s a steep drop-off toward the bottom of the canal that on many days is making it impossible to get the Privateer out into the water without damaging the vessel, Clapsadl said.

“It certainly makes our work more difficult,” he said.

Unprecedented drop

In December 2011, Lake Erie was about 18 inches above its “long-term average” level since the Corps began taking measurements in 1918.

For 12 consecutive months after that, however, the water level declined – a statistic that was unprecedented in the 95 years that the Corps has kept depth records for the lake.

Things seem to be slowly rebounding.

So far in 2013, the lake has regained a half a foot of water from where it started in January, thanks to a soggy early spring in parts of the Midwest. As of May 26, the water level stood at just over 571 feet.

Some of the newly exposed boulders and sand from last year’s drop are at least being slowly retaken by the water.

It’s a trend that the Army Corps forecasts will continue, at least over the next six months.

But the drop has still been noticeable to homeowners like the Zanetts at Angola-on-the-Lake, along with people who make their business on the lakes.

An American flag bears testimony to that fact.

Residents along a point at Lakeside Drive in Angola-on-the-Lake, not far from Mickey Rats club, installed an American flag on a wooden timber that once was the end of a pier, and which juts tens of yards out into the lake waters.

The reason was simple: too many boaters were tearing up the bottoms of their vessels on the rocks. Between the timber and the shore is now a graveyard of boulders.

“It happens all the time,” Zanett said, lauding his neighbors for taking a lead in helping steer boaters free from the zone with the flag. “It’s a good idea – it draws their attention to it.”

Theories for decline

Some have suggested water being diverted from the lake has gobbled up enough volume to make a difference in lake levels. The bottled water industry along with municipal water supplies and industry up and down the lake on both sides of the border divert millions of gallons of water every day.

Experts doubt that theory.

The “biggest drivers” for changes in lake water levels are evaporation and precipitation along the surface of the lake and the feeder streams, according to Keith Kompoltowicz, the chief of watershed hydrology for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“Those factors, by far, outnumber any of the other factors,” Kompoltowicz said.

A few major climatic factors in 2011-12 contributed to the historic drop in water levels, including the third least snowiest winter on record in Buffalo.

There were 36.7 inches of snow for the winter season, which led to little snowmelt from the watershed to run off into the lake. The average seasonal snowfall: 94.7 inches.

Then, the abnormally dry, hot summer followed. There were also moderate drought conditions across the state of Ohio, which forms the largest part of Lake Erie’s watershed.

In Buffalo, there was a total of 5.69 inches of rain from May through August 2012, nearly eight full inches below the normal of 13.61 inches.

“That, probably, in the scheme of this, is the biggest factor,” said Kirk Apffel, National Weather Service meteorologist.

Lighter loads for freighters

Many will continue to grapple with the consequences of a shallower lake.

Shallower waters mean shippers are forced to lighten their loads of cargo for transport around the lakes so their vessels don’t run aground. There’s a lot more strategy involved in Great Lakes shipping nowadays – in both mathematics and geography.

“Water levels are critical to our industry,” said Nekvasil, of the Lake Carriers Association. “Depending on the size of your ship, you lose 50 to 270 tons of cargo for every inch” of lost water depth.

On average, depending on where the cargo is traveling, freighters are moving 12 percent to 13 percent less in every load to compensate for the lower water levels across the Great Lakes, Nekvasil said.

“It has a horrible impact on our efficiency,” Nekvasil said. “When we leave cargo behind, that’s cargo that’s not going to be delivered that year.”

The one-two punch of reduced depths along with cutbacks in channel dredging is hitting the Great Lakes shipping industry hard.

“There has been an instance where lake vessels approached a harbor and they were not able to enter because there was not enough water in the harbor,” Nekvasil said about a recent situation on neighboring Lake Huron. “We come into port with inches to spare.”

Commercial shipping was closed in Dunkirk harbor seven years ago because the harbor got too shallow. Once a dropping point for a half-million tons of coal per year for use in electric generation, Dunkirk stopped receiving cargo by lake freighter in 2006, Nekvasil noted.

Although not hit as hard by sand and sediment deposit due to protection from the series of breakwaters in the outer harbor, the port of Buffalo is not immune to impaired navigation from shallow water.

Every year, roughly 70 to 100 lake freighters deliver cargos of limestone, grain, cement and sand to the Queen City, Nekvasil said.

Lately, those vessels are traveling well below capacity.

“We lighten the load going into Buffalo,” Nekvasil said.

The Great Lakes’ largest commercial shipper under a U.S. flag is headquartered here. The 106-year-old American Steamship Co. of Williamsville lists 18 vessels that range in capacity from 23,800 to 80,900 tons. It’s unclear the last time its largest vessel shipped at top capacity. Officials from the company didn’t return several calls from The Buffalo News for comment on this article.

While the impact of low lake levels has been difficult in a sluggish economy, it hasn’t proved catastrophic to the shipping industry.

“If our customers were going full speed, we’d be hard-pressed to meet their needs,” Nekvasil said.

Federal legislation is in the pipeline to help Great Lakes navigation.

In recent weeks, the U.S. Senate passed the Water Resources Development Act, which is designed in part to provide funding for dredging actions in Great Lakes ports.

It’s something that’s necessary, but long overdue, according to shippers.

Nearly $1.6 billion annually in government taxes on cargo goes into the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, which is designed to provide money for items like dredging. Only about half of the money collected has been allocated toward harbor maintenance, Nekvasil said.

Environmental effects

The effect of the lower lakes is marginal from an environmental standpoint. As time marches on, the water levels go up and drop down.

“We’re not looking at significant impacts,” said Don Zelazny, the Great Lakes Program Coordinator for the state Department of Environmental Conservation. “The biggest problem with lake water levels is from a boating standpoint.”

Those boaters, like Davenport, are affected along with the recreational harbors like Sturgeon Point and marinas with fixed docks that can’t account for the sudden water loss.

“Recreational access,” said Kompoltowicz. “The recreational boater may not be able to put his boat in.” And if he can, whether at Grandview Bay or Hideaway, there are new navigational hazards.

In the meantime, folks along the shoreline have new stuff to look at.

“There were all kinds of things sticking out of the water,” Zanett said, “that I’ve never seen before.”