Making this Great Lake a Little Greater

By Jenna Kooker and Ryan Leahy.

The Beach Boys sing about the west coast of California, and even Floridians brag about their west coast, but we don’t often think about that third populous state, New York, as having a west coast. Yes, New York has a west coast. In fact, the surrounding coast of Lake Erie is home to over 12 million people, making it the most populated of the Great Lakes. Life on Lake Erie is dictated by its geometry, recognized centuries ago by even the first people who called it “Erielhonan,” the Iroquois word meaning “long tail.” The lake is 800 miles long and 57 miles wide at its widest, but only 210 feet deep. This shape helps bring context to the unique coastal processes that occur there and the challenges to be faced when planning for shoreline improvements and marinas.

What are those unique characteristics that make that coastline such a challenging environment? There are two. First, strong west winds drive waves that move huge volumes of sediment along the coast from west to east. These all want to accumulate at the eastern end of the lake. This makes creating harbor works incredibly challenging by forcing frequent and extensive dredging campaigns.