By PETER H. MILLIKEN
As the Berlin Lake water level plummets because of the lingering drought, so, too, do the fortunes of many longstanding, locally owned businesses that depend on boat traffic, which has been decimated this year.
Five inches of rain would have to fall throughout the lake’s 249-square-mile watershed in one day to raise the lake to the level boaters normally enjoy, accord-ing to a federal hydraulic engineer.
“We’re all weather-dependent out here and lake dependent,” said Penny Bendetta, owner of Ben’s Restaurant and Bar on U.S. Route 224 in Berlin Township.
“Families aren’t out there on the lake and stopping here on their way home,” said Bendetta, whose business has been operating since 1978.
Early-arriving good weather this spring helped the restaurant through the early part of the warm-weather season. But, last weekend, Bendetta said, her sales were half what she experienced during the same weekend last year.
Across the lake in Deerfield, a business more directly linked to boating has suffered an even greater loss as the lake scrapes its lowest July level since 1991.
“My business is down 70 percent from what it should be,” said Martha Cobb, owner of the 51-year-old Les’ Bait Marcko Landing LLC.
Business at the neighboring Spillway Marine Sales and Service is 35 percent to 40 percent below the normal summer level, said Mark Bann, the operator of that business and a Deerfield Township trustee.
Cobb and Bann agree that boat traffic at Berlin Lake this season is about 10 percent of what it would be in a normal summer.
Fewer boats are plying Berlin’s waters because boaters fear boat and motor damage should they hit unseen underwater hazards, such as sandbars and rocks, which loom close to the surface now that Berlin is 8 feet below its normal summer water level, Bann said.
BOAT ACCESS RESTRICTED
Boaters are also greatly restricted in their access to the 18.6-mile-long lake, said Bann. He advises boaters to keep to the main area of the lake between the dam and the former railroad trestle, and stay out of the shallow coves and the shallow southwest end of the lake.
Hitting a sandbar in a boat at 35 mph is “just like hitting a brick wall,” Bann said, noting that the boat stops suddenly and its occupants face ejection. “The lower it gets, the worse it gets,” he added.
In North Benton, Duke Katterheinrich, owner of Dutch Harbor Marina, a 35-year-old business, tells customers they must remove their boats from the water later this month or in early August.
“We’re going down right now about 3 inches a day. That leaves me 25 days before I have absolutely no boat ramp left,” Katterheinrich said.
Last week, Berlin fell below its normal winter-pool level in mid-July.
“Unless we get a couple of hurricanes coming up and dumping some serious water, it’s over for the season,” except for anglers with small boats, Bann lamented.
The five-inch-in-one-day rain throughout the watershed that would be needed to elevate Berlin Lake to its normal summer level would exceed the Mahoning Valley’s one-day record rainfall during Hurricane Ivan in September 2004, said Werner Loehlein, water management chief for the Pittsburgh District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the lake.
LITTLE RAIN EXPECTED
The National Weather Service forecast for the next 90 days calls for below-average rainfall in all of Western Pennsylvania and Northeast Ohio, said Loehlein, who is a hydraulic engineer.
“Berlin has a tremendous watershed. The only problem is the storms we’re having are hit-and-miss storms” that don’t deliver consistent rainfall, Cobb observed. “This drought has really dug its heels in,” she added.
The extent of the drought is well-illustrated by recycled and weighted-down Christmas trees intended as fish habitat. They lie high and dry on the barren mud flats and sandbars that would normally constitute the lake bottom.
Of the Corps-regulated lakes in the Mahoning and Shenango river valleys, Berlin is down the most from normal summer levels because it is the largest and deepest of these lakes and because it has had the least rain in its watershed this year, Loehlein explained.
Another impact on Berlin is that its water has to be drawn down to maintain water flow in the Mahoning River and navigation depths further downstream in the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, explained Dan Jones, Corps public affairs officer.
“We are the stepchild of the lakes around here,” Bann said. “They are going to take the water from Berlin and give it to (Lake) Milton, no matter what,” he added.
Rene Berberich, the Corps’ resource manager at Berlin Lake, said Berlin’s primary purposes are flood control and “low-flow augmentation downstream,” and “recreation is a by-product of Berlin Lake.”
The state-owned Lake Milton, just downstream from Berlin, stands a mere 6 inches below its normal summer level because of a 1990 water-level maintenance agreement between the Corps and the state, she explained.
Ohio operates a state park at Lake Milton, whose purpose is recreation, Berberich noted.
Under the agreement with the state, the Corps must maintain Lake Milton between Memorial Day and Labor Day at whatever level it was topped out at during the spring filling, Loehlein explained.
BOATING SEASON ENDS EARLY
At Berlin, whose 68 miles of shoreline touch Mahoning, Portage and Stark counties, some of the businesses catering to boating enthusiasts are preparing for an early end to their active season.
“We still have some boats in our marina. Some of them have pulled out (into storage) because the lake is hazardous right now,” Cobb said.
Cobb has been busy denying and trying to squelch rumors that her business is closing for good.
She said it will stay open seven days a week through September. However, due to the reduced water level and boating activity, it will clsoe this year in October, when it operates Fridays through Sundays in normal years.
Bann said Spillway Marine has enough boat and motor repair work to keep him busy for the next two weeks, after which he’ll decide whether to shorten his hours or close another day of the week in addition to Sundays.
Even after the boats are removed from the water, Katterheinrich said he’ll have boat storage, repair and winterizing work and will continue to operate Dutch Harbor year-round.
NOT ALL GLOOM & DOOM
Not every business near Berlin Lake is suffering significantly.
“We are really fortunate. We don’t rely on Berlin Lake. My schedule couldn’t be more full,” said Jeff Bowman, owner of Berlin Boat Covers and Upholstery in Berlin Township. “For the most part, it hasn’t affected us,” he said of the severe drought at Berlin Lake.
Bowman said his custom marine fabrication shop services boats plying the waters of Lake Erie and other Northeast Ohio lakes, which haven’t suffered from the drought as much as Berlin. Some of his customers are from as far away as Florida, he added.
Norman Rasul, owner of the Rasul’s Market gasoline station and convenience store in Berlin Township, said the drought has hurt his boat gasoline sales. “Other than that, I’m OK,” he said.
Camping reservations at the Corps’ Mill Creek Recreation Area at Berlin Lake through July 15 rose from 2,723 last year to 2,821 this year, and campground boat launchings through that date rose from 1,674 to 1,708, Berberich reported.
Berberich said she can’t explain the increase in boat launchings despite the low water level, but she said the campground has done well this year because of sunny and warm weather and in recent years as recession-stricken people have taken cheaper vacations closer to home.
Another 3-foot drop in the lake water level, which is expected around Aug. 12, would force closing the campground launch to trailered boats, but the campground will stay open through its scheduled Sept. 8 closing, regardless of when the launch closes, she added.