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'Catastrophic Erosion' As Lake Erie Reaches Record Water Levels

Water levels on Lake Erie, shown here at Edgewater Park in Cleveland, are at record highs. [Justin Glanville / ideastream]
Waves lap a rock wall on Lake Erie at Edgewater Park.

Elaina Goodrich sits on a blanket at Edgewater Park Beach on Lake Erie, watching her 3-year-old grandson scoop up sand by the colorful plastic bucketful.

In spring and summer, the two often spend their mornings here. It's a favorite spot for both of them — she for the peace and restoration, he for the fun.

Lately, though, she's been noticing something different: They've been sitting further and further up the beach to avoid actually sitting in the water.

"Usually it's much lower," she says, gesturing at the shoreline. "It's taken a lot of water to raise it that much. It's just very wet."

Very wet indeed. Lake Erie hit 574.6 feet above sea level as of Tuesday, about 30 inches higher than its average level at this time of year, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It's an historic high, breaking the previous record set in 1986, and levels are expected to continue to rise at least through the end of the month.

The reason is rain —  lots of it. Regional precipitation for April was 37 percent higher than normal and in May it was 21 percent higher, according to Scudder Mackey, chief of the office of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Office of Coastal Management.

Elaina Goodrich, of Bath Township, with her grandson at Edgewater Beach. [Justin Glanville / ideastream]

Mackey says all the water is causing major flooding and what he calls “catastrophic erosion” — the loss of as much as 8 to 10 feet of property in a couple of days. It’s part of what he says appears to be a larger pattern in the region.

"In the last several years, we have certainly started to see areas which are receiving excessive precipitation, and that may be the first inklings that this is part of the longer term shift in climate that's going to occur," he says. "And that's going to affect our local weather patterns in a very significant way."

 Mackey's office in Sandusky has been fielding as many as 10 calls a day from property owners and towns across Northern Ohio looking for help stabilizing their coastlines, he says. ODNR has been approving expedited permits for shore protection measures such as bulkheads, jetties and boulder seawalls.

Algae blooms, which just a few years ago poisoned drinking water in the lake's western basin near Toledo, could also reach harmful levels this year because of the heavy rain, Mackey says. That's largely because of excess nutrients such as fertilizers flowing into rivers feeding the lake.

"There's a very direct relationship to the amount of water that comes down the rivers and the nutrients that are carried with those waters," Mackey says. "And since we've had a lot more precipitation one would anticipate that there's going to be a lot more loadings into the lake." The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration releases annual algae forecasts for Lake Erie in July, and the blooms typically peak in August.

Water levels in all of the Great Lakes are above long-term average levels. [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Detroit District]

Back on Edgewater Park Beach, Elaina Goodrich and her grandson sat peacefully as trucks cleaned the sand in preparation for Thursday night's planned Edgewater LIVE concert program.

But by late morning, the concert had been canceled.

The reason? More rain on the way.

Justin Glanville is the deputy editor of engaged journalism at Ideastream Public Media.