Lake Erie water levels are high. Why? And what does that mean?

High water and wind washed away roads on April 15 in Marblehead.

Lake Erie is high – more than 20 inches above normal this month. Which means boaters are struggling to climb up from their docks. And waves are destroying property as it erodes beaches and bluffs.

The lake is still 7 inches short of the record high set in 1986. And it’s now about the same as last year. But in mid-February, water levels jumped quickly, so they were nearly a foot higher than they were in early spring 2017, said Scudder Mackey, chief of the Coastal Management office for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Lake Erie is as high as many people can remember.

“This year it went through the roof,” said Rob Quinn, who lives on Kelleys Island four months a year and has seen his boat lifts torn right off the dock. “There are weird things happening because the water level is so high.”

Historical Lake Erie water levels. (Army Corps of Engineers)

For example, the high water level further intensifies a natural effect called a seiche, a change in water level across the lake because of wind or atmospheric pressure. Winds across Lake Erie can mean a 10-foot difference between Toledo and Buffalo. And when the lake is already high, that may mean ferries to the islands can’t run because they can’t safely load cars or passengers.

What’s the deal with lake levels? Here’s what you need to know

What determines water levels?

All the Great Lakes have high water levels right now.

Lake levels generally depend on the amount of precipitation in each watershed and the amount of evaporation of water off the lake – especially in the fall, when cold, dry air sucks moisture out of the warmer lakes.

Water levels change very quickly on Lake Erie because it’s so small and shallow, Mackey said.

“You could have a major precipitation event and the next day you’ll see a change in the water level.”

Lake Erie levels are also affected by the amount of precipitation in the upper Great Lakes: Superior, Michigan and Huron.

That’s because about 92 percent of the water in Lake Erie comes from the upper lakes, through the Detroit River, into Lake Erie. Lake Erie then flows into the Niagara River, into Lake Ontario.

Why are lake levels high?

There was an increase in rain and snow the last two years in the upper lakes, Mackey said. There were also more frequent, stronger storms on Lake Erie.

Remember the April 15 weekend, when strong winds and heavy rain caused huge flooding and washed out roads in Marblehead and the islands?

“I haven’t seen an old timer on the east side of the island who has seen it as bad as the April 15 storm,” Quinn said.

Have lake levels broken records?

Not this year.

Lake Ontario broke records last year, but for Erie, the highest water was in 1986. That was 7 inches higher than now, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

There was high water across the Great Lakes in 1973 and 1974 and in 1997 and 1998, Mackey said. In 1999, the water level dropped dramatically, about 3 feet. It stayed relatively steady until about 2007, when It gradually began to build.

Can the government control water levels?

There is no human regulation of water levels in Lake Erie, unlike in Lakes Superior and Ontario, at either end of the system, Mackey said. Ontario set records and suffered massive flooding last year.

Lake levels tend to be cyclical.

What’s happening to land?

Clay bluffs in Lake and Ashtabula counties are especially susceptible to erosion and can quickly lose large slumps of land into the lake. Cuyahoga County has bedrock bluffs, which tend to be stronger.

Property owners have lost docks, stairs to their beach and structures meant to combat erosion, Mackey said. Though whole houses have fallen off cliffs in the past, he hasn’t seen that this year.

How are people reacting?

Boaters may think the high water levels are great, since they don’t have to worry about hitting rocks in shallow areas or having to deal with marinas being dredged, Mackey said.

But there are some issues for boaters.

On Facebook, Jeff Walker said boats cannot get under the Route 6 bridge in Vermilion and so, can’t leave the dock. John Ready said the east breakwall in the Cuyahoga River is barely visible, creating a hazard for inexperienced boaters.

Property owners have experienced major damage, though.

In the spring, property on the east side of Kelleys Island lost 8-10 feet of land, said Ned Williams.

Quinn added 30 feet of concrete to his dock, so he can reach the end.

“I’m just one guy. The whole shoreline is that way,” he said. “A lot of concrete trucks have been coming to Kelleys for construction projects.”

What can property owners do?

Many property owners installed sea walls, rivetments, groins, concrete modules and other kinds of shoreline protection the last time the lake was high, 30-40 years ago, Mackey said. Those projects are coming to the end of their useful life.

So while property owners figure out long-term solutions, they can apply with the state for a Temporary Shore Structure permit. The department of natural resources – which is currently finalizing an erosion map of the shoreline — can also offer technical assistance.

“People will put almost anything in the water to try to protect their property,” Mackey said. “We want to make sure the materials that are used don’t pose a public health or safety hazard and don’t degrade Lake Erie. You don’t want broken up concrete with rebar sticking out.”

What’s the forecast?

Lake Erie folks should see some relief. The Army corps of Engineers forecasts that lake levels will drop 3 inches by July 15.

Have you experienced property damage or weird changes because of high water levels? Find us on Facebook or email me at [email protected].