Editor's note: This is the first in an occasional series on the Dunkirk harbor and Lake Erie.
The level of water in Lake Erie is subject to change, sometimes rapid, sometimes slow and steady.
A shift in the wind speed and direction for an extended period can drive higher levels in one direction, a shift in long-term weather patterns can lead to a change as well.
OBSERVER Photos by Gib Snyder
Pictured is the city boat launch at the pier. Markings from higher water levels are visible in the background on the pier extension which helps shelter the launch site.
A decrease in precipitation over the past few years has caused Lake Erie, along with the Great Lakes that feed into Lake Erie, to see water levels drop.
According to information in its monthly bulletin, the Detroit District, Corps of Engineers and Environment Canada derive historic and projected lake levels under the auspices of the Coordinating Committee on Great Lakes Basic Hydraulic and Hydrologic Data. The information for April shows things may be changing.
While precipitation over the last year across the Great Lakes basin was 95 percent of average, in April the basin was well above average, especially the Michigan-Huron basin which was at 183 percent of its April average. In addition, the bulletin stated net basin supplies for Superior and Ontario were just slightly below average in April, while the net basin supplies for Lakes Michigan-Huron and Erie were well above average in April. The outflows for all the lakes, however, were below average in April.
The bulletin did say boaters should be aware of navigation hazards due to the Great Lakes being below historical averages from 1918 to 2012. It stated, "Lakes Superior and Michigan-Huron were 13 and 25 inches below average, respectively. Lakes St. Clair, Erie, and Ontario were 11, 8, and 6 inches below average."
Local resident Zen Olow has a keen interest in the lake and outdoors in general. Olow is Chairman of the Chautauqua County Federation of Sportsmen Clubs; chairman of Chautauqua County Fish Advisory Board; Field Secretary for the Conservation Club, which has him attending meetings of other organizations. Olow is also on the board of directors of the New York State Conservation Council, the DEC Fish and Wildlife Region 9 and the DEC's state board of directors.
"The lake is low. It fluctuates, but it's really low now, but it has been for the last couple years," he stated. "They claim it's all because of the lack of snow. But you wonder if what's going on in Canada where they're funneling off the water for their power generating plant and everything else, they've got that 48-foot tall tunnel where they siphon off water. That's got to affect the lake water level and I don't know if that's all part of this compact they've got with the States and Canada, I don't know."
Olow added the low levels make it tough for boaters, both to get in and out of boats at certain marinas and to take boats out into the lake.
"It's something you've really got to love to be involved. It's just not fishermen either, it's recreational, and there's a lot of people who just go out and water ski and go out for a ride," he explained, adding boaters come from Erie and Canada for weekends.
As for action to get dredging funding, Olow said Lake Erie gets limited funding from Chautauqua County "bed tax' monies.
"We only get $25,000 a year compared to Chautauqua Lake, which gets hundreds of thousands of dollars," he stated. "Twenty-five thousand dollars wouldn't even get somebody to come down here and look at dredging."
Dunkirk Mayor Anthony J. Dolce said the city is working on getting funds for dredging work in the harbor.
"We have spoken to individuals from Southern Tier West who have an interest in working with all of the communities with harbors to try and do more of a team approach. This has worked with Erie and Niagara counties," he explained. "Get everyone on the same page to go for a larger pot of money to try and get all of our harbors dredged."
Dolce was asked if the city has money set aside for dredging work.
"We do not but we are also going out for county money in hopes of securing that and leveraging that money with other possible sources on our own," he replied. "We'll work collaboratively and we'll also try and go out on our own to get some money for dredging. It's a very short season that you're allowed to do it, so we're looking to have that in place for 2014."
The U. S. Army Corps of Engineers has usually been involved with dredging in the harbor. Dolce said their involvement again depended on several variables that were discussed at a recent meeting.
"It all depends on where you're dredging and who's in the area," he explained. "The Army Corps may be doing some. Maybe we can get them to do our part and we would pay them. All those details are still being worked out.
"We have a ways to go on this but the applications need to be out, at least one of the applications needs to be out by June 1. We'll be meeting again on Tuesday to finalize our application."
Department of Public Works Director Tony Gugino is working on a five-to-10 year permit as part of the process, according to the mayor. Dolce added the city was looking for some county bed tax money to help pay for dredging.
"That's the area where we'll be applying for the $40,000, which we will need to hopefully leverage with other monies to get stuff done," he explained.
Dolce was asked if Lake Erie interests been shortchanged over the years, given the amount of funding to Chautauqua Lake.
"Yes, we definitely have. In general, statewide, I think this area tends to be forgotten," he replied.
According to data provided in the bulletin, Lake Erie levels in the period from 1985 to 1987 were anywhere from 2 to 4 feet higher than the period from January 2011 to now.
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