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Fighting Summer's End at Berlin Lake

The unofficial end of summer is here. But at Berlin Lake in Portage County, many boaters, fishermen and residents say that summer ended weeks ago, and they’re working to change the situation.

A few weeks ago at Les’s Bait on Berlin Lake, staff members were pressure-washing boats and prepping equipment for storage for the season. Usually, they don’t do that until well after Labor Day.

“Look at the rampways coming down. You can see where the water should be at the top up there. I mean, this is pathetic," says Leslie Steele, who runs Les’s Bait. The small shop has the unmistakable, slightly fishy/slightly piney smell of a mom-and-pop shop that’s been selling supplies and renting dock spaces for years. In this case, since 1961, when Steele’s parents opened for business.

This year, she says the Army Corps of Engineers started draining the lake around the 4th of July to bring the water levels down ahead of the fall and winter. It happens every year – like it’s supposed to -- according to Army Corps spokesman Jeff Hawk.

“They keep storage in the lake so they can collect precipitation that comes in and falls behind the dams and reduce the flood crest downstream. So we come up to what’s called a summer pool in the summer. The lake, during that time, we try to hold it at that summer pool. And then we draw down to a winter starting in the August-September timeframe.”

Building a lake
Hawk says that’s one of the main reasons the Army Corps created the lake in the first place, during World War II: as a reservoir to combat droughts or floods on the Mahoning River. Recreation is permitted, but it’s not the primary function. It is the primary business, and boaters want the drawdown to start later.

“There should be another month of boating," says Cyril Turek from Canfield. He pulled his 27-foot pontoon boat out for the season last weekend – the earliest he’s ever done so. But he had no choice after bottoming out and damaging his propeller. That’s going to cost him $300.

“There’s places on the lake that’ll go from 30 to 3 feet in two seconds. Normally, I boat till the end of September. But not at Berlin you don’t because they keep draining the water down.”

Info gathering
Deerfield Township Trustees are exploring what actions to take to help boaters like Turek. They’re forming a committee to gather information for a possible lawsuit against the Army Corps to force them to delay the drawdowns. Trustee Mark Bann says it’s having a big impact on businesses.

“Les’s Bait or Dutch Harbor or the restaurants, they will tell you exactly when this lake gets lowered, because the people stop coming.”

The Corps says it’s following a plan that dictates when to start drawing down water levels, and by how much. Right now, the level is more than 6 inches below where it’s supposed to be in winter – when the lake needs to have space for melting snow.

Changing weather
The Army Corps’ Jeff Hawk explains their approach is to look at present conditions while considering the future when it comes to how early to begin the drawdown. And compared to 40 years ago, the forecast calls for extreme weather.

“You can take a look at Hawaii – 50 inches of rain. You can look at Houston – 50 inches of rain down there. You can see some of the historic droughts that are happening. And we have to prepare for things like that. And certainly, we’re going to be conservative and not increase the risk to people, property and the environment downstream.”

Earlier this year, the Corps considered deviating from the established water plan, but in order to make a change, they say they need more information.

“We would need a much more extensive study to understand -- what can we anticipate in the future, what are our present conditions, what have things looked like in the past – to change a water control plan that has been so successful for the downstream communities.”

But Leslie Steele asks, "Why should we need a study, when they’ve already studied it for 40 years and they didn’t have a problem with it?”

Beyond a lawsuit, Deerfield Trustee Mark Bann has reached out to Sen. Rob Portman and Congressman Tim Ryan for help, and he’s planning to take his case to Army Corps officials in Washington, D.C., later this month. The Corps has called a public meeting for September 20 for input on the management of Berlin Lake. The water level issue is not on the agenda. As for Les’s Bait, they closed for the season yesterday.