NIAGARA FALLS - The water level in Lake Erie and the Niagara River is likely to remain below average well into the coming year, and it may even approach a historic new low, experts are predicting.
But the spectacular flow over Niagara Falls is in no danger of being affected anytime soon.
The average water level in all of the Great Lakes has been below average in recent years, despite some seasonal surges, according to Col. Robert D. Peterson, deputy commander of the Great Lakes and Ohio River Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Peterson made his comments to a small crowd gathered for a meeting sponsored by the International Niagara Board of Control in the Earl W. Brydges Public Library Building this week.
The Board of Control, made up of representatives of the United States and Canada, was created by the International Joint Commission in 1953 to provide advice on the regulation of water levels, installation of the ice boom between Buffalo and Fort Erie, Ont., and determining the amount of water available for the cataracts at Niagara Falls and for generation of electricity.
The International Joint Commission was established earlier, by the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty, to address Great Lakes issues affecting both countries. International treaties require a minimum flow over the Horseshoe Falls and American Falls to maintain them as spectacular tourist attractions. Excess flow is diverted from the Niagara River into conduits supplying water for the hydroelectric generating stations in both countries.
Lake Erie currently is "about 8½ inches lower [than normal] for this time of year," said Paul M. Yu, chief of water management for the Corps' Buffalo district. This summer's drought has left all of the Great Lakes with lower than average water levels. "This is happening systemwide," Yu said. "All the lakes are experiencing this."
The water level in the lakes and river are of importance to shoreline property owners whose boat docks can be left high and dry by low water, and whose beaches can be inundated by high water.
The volume of water in the Niagara River also can have a critical effect on the production of electricity at power plants on both the Canadian and U.S. sides of the river.
"The outflow from Lake Erie is below average," Peterson said. "And we expect Lake Erie to remain below average through the rest of this year and into next year."
At the meeting Wednesday night, Paul Gromosiak, a local historian and author, asked about the role global climate change could have on the falls. He asked what would happen if the volume of water sunk so low that there was not enough for both the aesthetics of the falls and for power generation.
Representatives of various official agencies responded that the flow to the power plants would be curtailed and the minimum flow over the falls would be maintained.
"Tourism wins out," Gromosiak said, summing up what he heard. "The power stations would be shut down if the water got that low."
International treaties require a minimum flow over the falls of 100,000 cubic feet per second during the tourist season daylight hours, and 50,000 cubic feet per second at night and during the winter months. The rest of the river flow can be diverted into the power plants.
Currently, about 200,000 cubic feet per second of water is flowing, Yu said.
One resident along the east branch of the Niagara River at Grand Island said the water level in front of his property drops by about 1½ inches within a short time after the diversion gates to the power plants are opened each night.