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U.S. Army Corps: Lake Erie Water Levels Down, Still Higher Than Average

Geneva-on-the-Lake declared a state of emergency in February due to accelerated erosion. The village mayor blamed high water and lack of vegetation along the shoreline for accelerating the problem. [Tim Dubravetz / ideastream]
Red danger tape marks an area where shoreline erosion took place in Geneva-on-the-Lake.

Lake Erie’s water levels have been on the rise for the past two decades, and broke monthly records multiple times earlier this year. That’s based on a report delivered to the Ohio Lake Erie Commission Wednesday.

The past five years have been the wettest in the Great Lakes Basin since records began in 1899, according to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Water Management Chief Keith Koralewski. Lake Erie hit record-high levels in February, March and April of this year, he said. Those high water levels led to severe erosion in some areas of Northeast Ohio.

The lake dropped below 2019 levels starting in June, Koralewski said, and has continued to decline. The lower levels are expected this time of year.

“[Lake Erie] usually peaks around the June time frame,” he said. “Then it will usually start to decline, have a seasonal decline, due to warmer weather and then into the winter.”

But the lake is still higher than the historical average.

Precipitation has been on the rise in the Midwest and Rust Belt since 2011, which is one of the primary drivers for the higher water levels, Koralewski said.

“41 percent of the continental U.S. has received the most amount of precipitation during that 2011 to 2018 time frame,” he said.

It’s hard to tell exactly how much water will come through Lake Erie over the next few months, Koralewski said. But projections show levels higher than average through February 2021.

“There are no scientific data that can accurately predict the amount of water that will be coming into Lake Erie in the future,” Koralewski said.

The Army Corps is prepared to assist local communities in case of emergency, said Emergency Management Chief Phil Stitzinger.

“On Ohio and Lake Erie, we don’t necessarily have to worry about hurricanes directly hitting, or volcanoes like you would see in Hawaii,” Stitzinger said. “But there is risk of flooding, there is risk of ice jams, so those are the types of events that we’re looking at.”

Assistance may come in the form of engineering and technical aid, he said, or in the form of direct assistance such as empty sandbags and plastic sheeting. But direct assistance to an individual homeowner or business is not permitted, he said.

But that relief will only come in the form of support to state and local governments as outlined in a memorandum of understanding or similar agreement, he said.

“The federal government, the Corps of Engineers, we’re not going to come in right away and say, ‘Okay, we’re taking over,’” Stitzinger said. “All disasters are local, everything’s a local effort, so what we want to do is immediately provide that monitoring, that assistance.”