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Rising Lake Erie damages property, swallows beaches

The star-spangled banner still waves in Lake Erie – but in much deeper water.

The 4-by-6-foot Stars and Stripes that Ward Pinkel of Evans anchored between some rocks in Grandview Bay a few years ago had a purpose beyond patriotism: to warn boaters of shallow water and a field of debris from an old dock.

But those rocks and remnants of that dock are now submerged, along with most of the flagpole, as Lake Erie’s rising waters now lap toward the bottom of Old Glory. That’s because the lake has added a lot of water over the last few months – about 2.9 trillion more gallons, or roughly the equivalent of 4.4 million Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Just a couple of years removed from unprecedented declines in water levels – when Lake Erie dropped every month in 2012 and ran as much as 9 inches below normal between May 2012 and June 2013 – its depth ballooned in June and July because of as much as 400 percent more rainfall in some areas of the Great Lakes watershed this spring and summer.

Lake Erie is averaging 573.31 feet above sea level this month, according to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers data. That height hadn’t been reached since June 1998.

The lake is now about 24 inches higher than in July 2012.

“We used to have a fairly good-sized beach,” said Jan Beurskens, a Lakeside Road resident. “You go down there now, it’s just a little bit.”

Pinkel added: “All the beaches are swallowed up; they’re all under water.”

The higher lake levels are stealing the beachfront property and dampening the yards and basements of the Beurskens and other Grandview Bay families.

For swimmers and water enthusiasts in this popular spot, what used to be ankle-deep water is now waist-deep.

And according to the Corps of Engineers, this period of high water – levels are forecast to remain as much as 14 inches above normal over the next couple of months – could further exacerbate shoreline flooding and erosion, especially if even more rain falls.

Residents here got a taste of that last week when a deluge from thunderstorms flooded streets, driveways and yards. With the water table already high, the ground was saturated. Throw in clogged drainage ditches around the neighborhood and the water quickly raced through the area, seeking ever-lower ground as it moved toward Lake Erie. But debris and a washed-out gravel roadway dammed up some areas as the water approached the already-bloated lake.

“It was a Class IV rapids, the water was just coming across people’s yards,” said Karen Little of Lakeside Road. “It was coming so fast, it was backing up.”

Residents are still drying out their yards and basements.

Not far from Grandview Bay, low-lying areas along Lakeshore Road between Bennett and Beach roads are also flooding easily in wet weather because of the higher water table.

“We’re just fortunate we haven’t had any storms from the southwest, because if this lake surges, the water is going to be way up in everyone’s backyards and lawns,” said Ben Little, president of the Grandview Bay Community Association. “I think that could be a real serious problem.”

That will be something to keep an eye on, especially as summer turns to fall, given the Corps of Engineers’ projections.

When November gales whip up, seiches – storm surges – are often created on the eastern end of the lake. Those storm surges are measured in feet.

Sustained periods of high water in the 1980s, combined with storms, led to significant damage along the lake shore, Pinkel recalled. Hoover Beach was wiped out. Sand dunes near Bennett Beach washed out into the lake. Cliffs in Hamburg and Derby eroded, pulling shale into the lake.

Effect is widespread

Lake Erie isn’t the only water body affected.

Lake Huron and Lake St. Clair, which feeds Lake Erie through the Detroit and St. Clair rivers, are up more than 6 and 17 inches over normal, respectively, according to Corps of Engineers data. Further north, Lake Superior is more than 8 inches higher than normal.

Corps of Engineers officials said dramatic rainfall in the lakes’ watersheds caused the rapid rise in the water level.

“That is a direct result of the extremely wet weather in the Lake Erie basin in June and July,” said Keith Kompoltowicz, chief of watershed hydrology for the Corps of Engineers in Detroit. “Parts of the Lake Erie basin over the last 35 days have two, three or four times the normal amount of precipitation.

“That causes all the rivers and streams that feed the lakes to run high and the rainfall that falls down on the lake itself has caused the level of Lake Erie to rise over the last six weeks or so,” Kompoltowicz said.

A survey of meteorological data from seven major metropolitan areas around the Lake Erie watershed shows every city has had above-average precipitation between May and July – some dramatically higher. Nearly 23 inches of rain has fallen in Fort Wayne, Ind., during that time, about double its average. Both Cleveland and Toledo have received roughly 60 to 70 percent more rain than normal.

That’s a lot of water.

Back in Erie County, there’s really no better place to gauge the impact than Grandview Bay, where the remnants of the 1930s-era neighborhood boat dock – timbers strung together to anchor a series of rock and concrete cribs – provide a modern-day benchmark of the water’s depth for residents, beach enthusiasts, boaters and anglers.

During the lowest of the recent lows – around Christmas 2012 – Lakeside Road resident George Harvey snapped pictures showing the graveyard of timber and rocks protruding from the water. The following spring, a lot of the dock debris still showed above the surface.

That was the year the Harveys remembered collecting pieces of broken boat motors from the water. Many an inexperienced boater, or those unfamiliar with the debris field, would make the turn into the bay heading for the nearby beach clubs and maroon themselves or tear up their motors on rocks or debris just below the surface.

“We’d be sitting out for dinner and it was a reasonably common occurrence,” Harvey said. “It was snagging a lot of boats.”

Pinkel used to attach makeshift buoys to the end of the old pier in an effort to warn boaters, but rough waters and winds often stole them. He got the idea to mount the flag there – the flag pole slides into a submerged 5-gallon utility bucket filled with concrete – after seeing a similar shoreline set-up in the Dominican Republic.

The bottom of the pole is usually in about a foot of water, Pinkel said, but it’s easily now about waist-deep.

Even so, the extra depth doesn’t necessarily mean fewer boat accidents in that part of the bay, he said.

“It’s always been a hazard,” Pinkel said. “It’s more of a hazard when the lake water is high because you can’t see the rocks.”

A mightier Niagara?

The higher lake waters have to go somewhere. In Lake Erie’s case, that’s down the Niagara River and over Niagara Falls.

So does that mean more water going over the Falls this summer?

“Not necessarily,” according to Keith R. Koralewski, chief of the Corps of Engineers’ water management team. “The higher levels can cause higher flows out of Lake Erie, but the power entities – New York Power Authority and Ontario Power Generation – can withdraw as much water as they need and/or can handle as long as the flow over the Falls meets … criteria set forth by the 1950 treaty between both countries.”

Koralewski said the theory of more water going over the Falls was “plausible” if the U.S. or Canada weren’t retaining extra water. But he said that, through June, the flow over Niagara Falls “has been fairly steady” during daytime hours.

“There was no upward trend even though the Lake Erie outflow had increased during that timeframe,” Koralewski said.

The New York Power Authority declined to provide real-time flow data of the river above the falls, but a historical analysis of the Niagara River flow at Buffalo may provide some support for the hypothesis of more water flowing into the river.

Only in eight years between 1900 and 2013 did the mean July monthly flow of the Niagara River at Buffalo exceed 7,000 cubic meters per second, according to public data from the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. When compared with Corps of Engineers data, those eight years – 1973, 1974, 1976, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1997 and 1998 – also represent the top eight years for Lake Erie water levels on record.

And earlier this month, high water levels in the lower Niagara River resulted in suspended operation of the Maid of the Mist and Hornblower tour boats after the Niagara River Control Center conducted a daytime “spill” of water over the falls.