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In a year, 2 lakes’ water levels rise nearly a foot

Lake Erie’s water level in October was 10 inches higher than in the previous October, recovering from the historic drop-off in 2012.

The 10-inch rise is equivalent to the water volume in more than 2 million Olympic-size swimming pools.

Similarly, Lake Ontario’s water level gained nearly a foot between October 2012 and October 2013, and this month remains about 3 inches above the long-term water level average for November.

The increases are part of an overall rising trend in Great Lakes water levels this year, according to new data reported by federal scientists.

An unusually wet spring this year accounted for the resurgence of water levels, which had receded to record lows last fall and winter, according to scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers.

But early forecasts indicate that water levels could recede again slightly heading into 2014.

Lake Erie, according to data ending in October, gained 10 inches of water from where the lake level was in October 2012. From December 2011 to October 2012, Lake Erie went through an unprecedented period in which its water level dropped for 10 consecutive months.

“That had never happened before in recorded history,” said Drew Gronewold, a hydrologist with the NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.

Despite the recent rise, water levels still remain low for those who frequent the lakes.

Scientists still experience difficulty launching their boat into the Black Rock Channel at SUNY Buffalo State’s Great Lakes Center at the foot of Porter Avenue.

“The level doesn’t look like it has gone up 10 inches, but then it was really low,” said Mark D. Clapsadl, the center’s field station manager. “It’s still an issue for us, still tricky to get a boat into the water from a trailer.”

Low water levels can adversely affect fish, primarily those that depend on nursing habitat along the shore, said Clapsadl, a fish biologist.

“It depends on the shape and depth of the shoreline, but levels can have a pronounced influence,” he said.

Precipitation and evaporation drive lake water levels.

Low water levels occurred throughout the Great Lakes early this year for two reasons: a dearth of snowfall during the winter of 2011-12 followed by an early spring in 2012. A prolonged period of hot and dry weather brought widespread drought in the Midwest during that summer.

Forecasters project that lake levels will slide again during the next few months – as they normally do – because of the significant evaporation in the late fall and early winter months. When the evaporation of the lake waters exceeds the precipitation falling on them, simple mathematics dictates that water levels will drop.

Evaporation over the Great Lakes seems to concern scientists the most nowadays. The rate of evaporation in the basin has “accelerated over the past 15 years” since the El Niño effect kicked in around 1998.

Scientists think that El Niño, a climate pattern associated with warmer ocean water temperatures, has played a direct role in the “rapid acceleration of evaporation” on the lakes, along with the sudden decrease in winter ice cover and changes to lake water temperatures.

Reduced ice cover on the Great Lakes could be related to an overall change in climate, according to some scientists.

A team of scientists from the United States and Canada continues to research the relationship, if any, that ice cover plays in lake water evaporation.

Early findings suggest that warmer lake waters during the autumn months might lead to the accelerated evaporation with less evaporation during the winter months, with or without ice cover.

Lake Erie probably does evaporate as much as wider and deeper lakes such as Superior, Huron and Michigan because “it often freezes completely over in wintertime,” said Keith Kompoltowicz, watershed hydrology branch chief for the Army Corps. The ice acts as a protective blanket for the waters underneath it, making evaporation close to zero.

That would help explain why Lake Erie hasn’t experienced the sustained and historic low water levels that have gripped the three larger Great Lakes to the west during the last decade.

Less evaporation from Lake Erie combined with larger amounts of rainfall and runoff into its watershed this year bolstered the lake’s “net basin supply,” Kompoltowicz said.

Lake Erie caught up to and briefly exceeded its long-term monthly average for July this past summer, when its water level was about 1.5 inches above average. Since that time, it has remained slightly above or at average before slipping to about ∑-inch below average this month.

Scientists discount the suggestion that massive water draws for municipal water supplies, bottled water or hydraulic fracturing operations have any significant effect on Great Lakes water levels. “Consumptive use diversions are very minuscule,” Kompoltowicz said.

Lake levels have consequences for marina operators, recreational boaters, property owners and especially commercial lake freighters that often have to adjust navigation routes or the size of their cargo depending on the depth of the water.

The average water level for Lake Erie this month is 570.82 feet above sea level, according to Army Corps figures. That is down about 3 inches from last month’s average, but almost right at the lake’s long-term November average of 570.83 feet for the recorded period between 1918 and 2012.

And it’s 5 inches above last November’s average.

Lake Ontario stood at 244.79 feet for the month’s average, about an inch less than October, but about 3 inches higher than the long-term average and almost 13 inches over last November, the Army Corps figures show.

Whether the lakes locally – and regionwide – continue to recover more water in 2014 remains to be seen.

“The forecast part of this can change very quickly,” said Kompoltowicz.

Rich Davenport, a fisherman from North Tonawanda, said that he has noticed improving water levels in Lake Erie but that overall levels in the larger Great Lakes basin remain low.

“Things have gotten better in Lake Erie this year with the wetter weather,” he said.

The low water level may have improved fishing in the eastern part of Lake Erie by driving fish away from the vast blue-green algae blooms in the western part of the lake, according to Davenport, recording secretary of the Erie County Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs.

News Staff Reporter Henry L. Davis contributed to this report. email: