Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Rising Water Levels Lead to Unexpected Expenses

If this image looks cold, it's because it is; this represents the first two of up to 140 truckloads of quarry limestone that are
currently being placed on our exterior (Sandusky Bay-facing) dike on our West Marsh

One recurring theme of this running narrative has been that water levels dictate about everything else when it comes to wetland management, particularly in coastal settings. There are daily reminders of this universal truth in our work, but the impact of changing hydrology is particularly poignant today, as Roy oversees the start of an unexpected bay front stoning project on our West Marsh.

I say "unexpected" in that this investment (expense) was not on the radar when we took possession of the property in 2014. In fact, it wasn't clear on the screen even in 2017. But several consecutive years of increased water levels in Lake Erie and one particularly nasty storm event has ultimately placed this project on the top of the priority list.

Static water levels in Sandusky Bay were a solid 18" higher when this photo was taken (July 2018) as compared to when we
started this project (February 2015); what was a "barrier island" a few years ago (formed during low water years of the late
1990s and 15 years of the 2000s) has evolved into a deteriorating string of fallen willows and cottonwood trees

Water levels on Lake Erie (and all the Great Lakes) tend to be cyclical. Locals speak in terms of "high water years" and "low water years" because they tend to be memorable extremes. But when looking at the data over the last hundred years, most of the time, the lakes reside somewhere in between.

A significant northeast storm pushing Sandusky Bay water over a 25+ acre
area that is typically all above the water line (March 2018);
the typical shore line is left of any whitecaps on this image
Anthropomorphic issues arise when water levels hit these historic highs and lows. And as it turns out, as a result of an extremely complex interaction of many environmental factors (e.g., regional and local precipitation, evaporation, air temperatures, wind, ice cover, impermeable surfaces, etc., etc.), we in the midst of a period of near historic high water.

I stumbled onto a decent article (access here) on the subject relating to Lake Erie in particular.

Changing water levels impact our daily routines differently depending on our interrelationship with the lake. But for Standing Rush, the continuous uptick in lake and bay water levels have meant vulnerabilities in areas of the property that haven't been vulnerable for nearly 25 years.

A comparison of our access to Sandusky Bay during calm conditions, left (July 2017) and during the major storm event that
caused the bulk of the damage to our exterior dike (March 2017)

Data from the USACE, released today. The red line reflects recorded water levels. Compare those levels with the 100-year average (in blue) and the projection for the balance of the year (in green), and the reason for concern (or at least vigilance)
increases. I added the yellow highlighting; if the upper end of the projected deviation proves true, we will be breaking
records set in 1986 -- probably the last time our exterior stone was fortified. Let's hope that doesn't happen.

Once we realized that the water level trends weren't tipping down but could, in fact, be continuing up, permitting with USACE and ODNR was the next step. Roy has been working his tail off for the last several months on this front to allow us to do this work. The government shutdown complicated things, causing us to miss a mid-winter weather window. [Proper weather conditions are crucial: sustained cold, so the dikes can be driven as hauling roads, without too much snow, so trucks can access and not slip off the dikes.] If we can't do it now, we wait until July (after another potentially destructive spring storm season).

We received the official green light last Friday, and the good Lord miraculously seems to be giving us another weather window of late-season cold. To make matters more interesting, all work must be suspended from March 15-June 30 (a restricted period for in-water work to protect fish, among other things). The bad news is, protecting up to 1,250 linear feet of exterior dike will cost us up to $50,000 or $40/linear foot. The further bad news is, we did not have this project budgeted in our 3-year budget, and we have not been able to find funding support for the project (hard to get people excited about paying for rock!). The good news is, as of about an hour ago, we had the first 200 or so feet completed. It isn't fun, but we're protecting our assets.

ASIDE: While historic high water levels put stresses on anyone/anything on the lake shore, our biggest vulnerability comes if/when we have a strong NW or W wind following three or four days of sustained strong NE wind (a "Nor'easter"). Click here to see a short snippet of the destructive storm from March 2017. At 250-lbs+, I could barely stand up to film. Awesome power.