Straight from the Tap

March 2020 Sets Record for High Monthly Lake Erie Water Levels


March was another record month for Lake Erie water levels at 574 feet. This monthly average is 3 inches higher than the previous March record of 573.75 feet set in 1986. On March 31, 2020, Lake Erie’s water levels are 574.36 feet.

Lake Erie was 36 inches higher than the long-term March monthly average and a foot higher than both February and March 2019, which was itself a record-breaking year. Last year, new monthly high water levels were set in May (574.31 feet), June (574.61 feet), July (574.57 feet), August (574.21 feet) and September (573.72 feet).

Late February to early March is historically when lake levels begin their seasonal rise. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers predicts that lake levels will continue to do so and could potentially top last year’s highs.

How high water levels reach depends on how much precipitation falls in the lake’s 30,140 square mile watershed as well as how much water drains down the Detroit River into Lake Erie from the upper Great Lakes. Those lakes (Superior, Michigan, and Huron) are all at or above their all-time high water levels, too.

Typically, 80 to 90% of the water in Lake Erie flows down from the Detroit River; however, heavy spring rains, like the weekend storms that caused the Cuyahoga River to reach 100-year flood levels (and its 7th highest water level ever), can also be a major influence.

While high lake levels are causing erosion along many Great Lake’s coastal areas, our ability to treat and deliver safe drinking water is not impacted. Our four intake pump stations and four water treatment plants are on higher ground, or are not adjacent to Lake Erie, or both.

Lake Erie water temperatures are higher than average as well. After an ice-free winter, the lake reached its coldest winter temperature of 33.4°F on March 1. Normally, the coldest winter water temperatures occur at the beginning of February.

As of March 31, the water temperature was 40.7°F, which is 3.4°F and 3.2°F warmer than 2018 and 2019, respectively. In those same years, lake temperatures did not reach the 40.7 °F or warmer until mid-April.

Great Lakes water levels are officially tracked and recorded using the International Great Lakes Datum 1985 measurement system by a partnership between the United States Army Corps of Engineers and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration along with various research agencies.