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Decline of Lake Erie water levels has boating-reliant Vermilion worried


VERMILION — George Phillips has been around Vermilion for more than 50 years, and he’s never seen water levels in Lake Erie this low.

“For us and the city, this is serious,” Phillips said.

As owner of Valley Harbor Marina, Phillips operates the city’s biggest marina, which holds about 400 boats.

He’s among many who are very concerned with water levels that could put a real crimp in the coming boating season.

Especially when you consider Vermilion is the biggest recreational boating harbor on the Great Lakes, with more than 3,000 boats, according to Phillips, a former chairman of the Vermilion Port Authority.

The issue will be discussed at a public forum 6 p.m. April 17 at the Vermilion Court Complex, 687 Decatur St., which is behind the city police station.

Speakers are slated to include Ken Alvey of the Lake Erie Marine Trades Association, Joshua Feldman of the Corps of Army Engineers and a representative of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

The city has applied for a state dredging grant in hopes of deepening portions of the Vermilion River that lie outside the river’s Federal Channel, which runs from the harbor breakwall to the Liberty Avenue Bridge.

“We need that (dredging) now, even if we don’t get the grant,” Mayor Eileen Bulan said.

“Boating is our No. 1 economy,” Bulan added. “This is it.”

Problems began developing after the severe storms that struck the region as the secondary impact of superstorm Sandy in October.

“When Sandy happened, the mouth of the river really got silted in,” Bulan said. “We called it the hidden disaster because nobody thought about it at the time. There was so much going on then.”

Janet Koehn, office manager for Vermilion Power Boats, noticed the change right away.

“Sailboats were getting stuck at the mouth of the river last fall trying to come back to port,” Koehn said.

“If you can’t get in and out of the mouth of the river, you’re not going to go very far,” Koehn said, adding “there’s less water the more you go downriver (away from the lake).”

Bill McCarthy of the Vermilion Port Authority said water levels are about two feet below where they were last year at this time.

Current river depths weren’t immediately available, but McCarthy said the area should regain five to six inches of water with melting of snows from higher northern elevations in Canada.

“We’ll still be approximately 10 inches below last year,” McCarthy said.

Many have blamed the warmer, drier winter of 2011-12 and a hotter, drier summer for the drop in water levels.

The city historically relied on river dredging every two to three years by the Army Corps of Engineers, but that work was last done in 2004, according to McCarthy.

“The Corps cut back on funding, so commercial harbors are done first now, and recreational harbors aren’t being dredged,” McCarthy said.

“Marinas are going to have to dredge on their own because the government is not going to help them,” Phillips said.

If the situation gets bad enough, it could lead to boaters not coming to Vermilion this summer.

Vermilion Power Boats operates a fuel dock for power boats that gets lots of business during the summer.

The average water depth around the dock is 10 to 12 feet, but if water levels drop much below that, boaters won’t be able to reach it.

“If you can’t get fuel, you can’t go anywhere, there goes fuel sales, and we have unhappy boaters,” Koehn said.

“I’m very skeptical we’re going to get the water back,” Koehn said.

Sailboats could have a particularly rough time, Phillips said.

“Sailboats need around seven feet and I don’t think we’ll get that,” he said.

Contact Steve Fogarty at 329-7146 or

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