ASHTABULA — Republican U.S. Sen. Rob Portman met with a variety of local officials Friday at Kent State University Friday where Great Lakes issues were discussed.

The stop was part of Portman's North Coast Tour which is aimed at highlighting Lake Erie's Importance to Ohio's Economy. Portman said that not only is he impressed by the Ashtabula port and the Petmin project, but also with the county's tourism potential through the grape vineyards and the lake.

"There are a lot of good things going on in Ashtabula County," Portman said.

Tourism around Lake Erie is a giant industry in Ohio, Portman said, with around 25 percent of all tourism dollars on the Great Lakes being spent in Ohio.

Beyond its tourism implications, the lake also provides drinking water for around four million Ohioans, Portman said. This highlights the need to balance the need for industry projects like Petmin against the need to protect such a resource.

Through bipartisan efforts the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has been maintained in federal budgets after proposals under both the administrations of Obama and Trump to make large cuts, Portman said. 

"Understand the importance of this asset to our country not just the north coast of Ohio," Portman said.

However, there is still much work to be done whether it be in addressing algae blooms or invasive species on the waters, Portman said.

One area that officials at the roundtable said needs to be a focus is the rising levels of water in the lake and how those levels will affect industry and infrastructure along the coast. This year in particular there has been a lot of rain which resulted in a near disaster scenario at the Conneaut port.

Jim Hockaday, Conneaut city manager, said the city recently used a $300,000 emergency loan to build a break wall around the water plant on the banks of Lake Erie.

The city was in danger of losing its water intake because of rising lake levels this year. The city was also within two feet of having its sewage outfall at the treatment under water, Hockaday said, and there would be no way for a city of its size to afford to change the plant's design to operate under new lake levels that are higher than normal.

"On an emergency basis we appropriated $300,000 and within 30 days designed, engineered and installed about a 15 foot tall break water to protect that station from being overcome by Lake Erie which would have put us out of water all together," Hockaday said.

Scudder Mackey, chief office of counsel for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said in June the lake was about eight inches above record high levels. 

"Our parking lot in Sandusky has been about two thirds full of water," Mackey said. "Dumpsters are floating around and you can't even use it now."

The rising level of the lake highlights a need to consider the impact on facilities along the lake such as what happened in Conneaut, officials said. All the Great Lakes in June were above record high levels set in the 1980s, Mackey said.

The entire basin is saturated in water and it will take a while for that water to move through the system, Mackey said. Moving forward municipalities might need to change design perimeters when it comes to building structures along the shores, he said.

"We've seen substantial increases in damage along the coast line," Mackey said.

Mackey said Conneaut's plant was built in the 1930s during the dustbowl era when lake levels were lower.

Joseph Ortiz, chair of the department of Geology at Kent State University, said this is an example of how officials today must consider climate when working on projects.

"The choices that we make today are going to have a profound impact decades into the future," he said.

The recent projections on lake levels show that Lake Erie will probably be just as high if not higher in coming years, Ortiz said. The challenge being faced is that as temperatures get warmer more evaporation occurs, Ortiz said, which results in a more active atmosphere that results in more variable conditions.

It is a balancing game between how much rain comes in and the amount of water lost through evaporation. Current climate models show these two items being even, Ortiz said, meaning officials need to be concerned about high rainfall events.

Hockaday also used the visit with Portman as a chance to highlight how there are big things in the works for the port of Conneaut. The city is finalizing a lease with Canadian National, which operates a 900 acre property, and has exclusive access to the port's terminal, he said.

"They have four 1,000 foot ships and they can move approximately 50 million tons of bulk material annually," Hockaday said. "One hundred percent of the steel that comes out of Pittsburgh that they're so proud of comes through Conneaut first."

The port is currently exploring a large scale development project which is under a non-disclosure agreement, Hockaday said.

"We have submitted for a build grant in this cycle and we'd love the opportunity in the coming months to talk about that project amongst the other offices," Hockaday said.

Conneaut is seeking dollars to help support a dredge dewatering facility project with the primary goal of building an access road to the east side of the port to move truck traffic out of the city's recreational port and residential streets, Hockaday said.