By Dusty Sonnenberg, Field Leader
Reaching the “high water mark” in someone’s career is something most folks love to talk about, but for Mike Gonya from Sandusky County, this year’s record high Lake Erie water mark is not a good thing. This year it appears along with concern about the nutrients running off the fields into the lakes, the problem is the lake running into the fields.
The Lake Erie water levels resulted in flooded fields and no crops on some of his farms. Mike farms with his father and his son, Marcus. The family raises field corn and soybeans, along with sweet corn in the fertile lakebed soils north of Fremont along the Sandusky and Erie county line. For over 75 years, the Gonya family has brought in the harvest. Mike’s dad remembers from his youth when he was told about a time they never got to plant the crops. Back in 1943 his father and uncle had to go to town in Port Clinton to work in the fishing industry for the summer. Other than that, no one remembers a year quite like 2019. This year has been a double challenge as the lake is at a record high level, and strong northeast winds are pushing the water back into the Sandusky River and into the creeks and tributaries.
Lake Erie was 5 inches above its record high monthly average for June, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Detroit District office. The high-water level further intensifies a natural effect called a seiche. A seiche is a rise of water in large lakes that is created as a result of strong winds and/or large barometric pressure gradient. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, a particularly vulnerable location is the western lakeshore of Lake Erie. In an extreme case, water levels between Toledo and Buffalo can differ by more than 10 feet.
For farmers in Erie, Ottawa, and Sandusky counties who have fields in lower elevations near the lake, this poses a serious problem. The creeks and waterways that typically drain this rich farmland are actually bringing the water back up into the fields. This situation combined with the unusually high rainfall amounts this spring and early summer created a scenario unlike most had ever seen.
“Every time the wind would blow, the water would just keep coming, and then in the spring, the rains would come. We just finally decided that between the two, the wet spring and the high water, that is wasn’t worth putting anything in some of these fields because one more wind would drown it again,” Gonya said.
He estimates that in late July roughly 200 acres of their farm is still under water from the lake pushing back up into their fields. In total, they planted less than half of their acres this spring due to wet conditions from the combination of the lake waters and constant rainfall.
“That was actually a 23-acre soybean field,” Gonya said, pointing to a field across the road that could easily be mistaken for marshland, complete with cattails and a flock of Canada Geese floating on a small pond out in the middle. “That ground has been farmed for decades, but not this year.”
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Office of Coastal Management reported May precipitation totals were 21% higher than average across the entire Great Lakes basin, and Lake Erie water levels were 31 inches higher than the monthly average for June. The lake’s water levels have been on the rise for 3 years.
Most fields along the mouth of the Sandusky River and the creeks immediately emptying into the Sandusky Bay are diked to keep the water from backing up into the fields. Mike shared that while the dikes typically keep the lake water out, they also keep the rainwater in, so they usually need to be pumped out at least once in the spring. On average he estimates a cost of $10 per acre for pumping the fields with dikes. This year many farmers found themselves just circulating the water as they were pumping because the strong northeast winds kept pushing the lake water back over top of the dikes as they were pumping it out. By the end of May, many farmers in the area decided to pull the plug on pumping.
“Even if we did get it pumped out and dry enough to plant and establish a crop, one strong Nor’easter and the water would come back over the dikes again and drown out the crop,” Gonya said.
While this year is a record high level for the lake, more concern looms on the horizon as 2020 is predicted by some to exceed the high-water mark set in 2019.
“There is no human regulation of water levels in Lake Erie, unlike in Lakes Superior and Ontario, at either end of the system,” said Scudder Mackey, chief of the Coastal Management office for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
Lake levels tend to be cyclical. Typically, water levels drop in the fall, according to Gonya. November is usually the lowest. He hopes to begin to do some tillage and level up at least parts of the fields and plant cover crops to begin to reclaim the soil structure as soon as conditions allow.
As far as concerns over soil compaction, nutrient loss, and overall soil quality and soil health, Gonya is taking the approach that there is not much he can do until the water goes away. Gazing across the pond with geese in his soybean field, this is a “high water mark” in his career that Gonya hopes not to repeat.