Chances of high water on Lake Ontario ‘moderate’

This file photo from 2017 shows flooding at the Wright's Landing Marina, damage from which is still being dealt with by city officials and shoreline residents. Experts say there's a "moderate" chance of higher-than-normal water levels in 2021.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Lake Ontario waters have fallen below their seasonal average for the first time in more than two years, and international regulators are "optimistic" a damaging rise in water levels won't occur this spring, but local officials remain opposed to the water management plan many have blamed for widespread flooding in 2017 and 2019.

The International Lake Ontario - St. Lawrence Board (LOSLRB), which manages the outflows from Lake Ontario through the Moses-Saunders Dam near Massena, earlier this month expressed optimism that winter and spring weather conditions would not result in 2021 lake levels rising to the 2017 and 2019 highs that damaged property and ravaged seasonal businesses across the region.

LOSLRB officials this month said “somewhat drier weather conditions over the past several months" combined with favorable St. Lawrence River ice conditions and high outflows have caused a decline in Lake Ontario water levels, which recently fell several centimeters below the long-term seasonal average. The board said it has been working “proactively" since Jan. 1 to reduce lake levels "in case the weather turns wet."

"Under the board’s current deviation strategy, outflows from Lake Ontario have been maximized and set above some Plan 2014 prescribed limits, resulting in the removal of an additional (3.1 inches) of water from Lake Ontario when compared to strict adherence to Plan 2014 rules," LOSLRB officials said in a statement earlier this month, adding the strategy would continue through the end of February.

Board members said the risk of high water on Lake Ontario in 2021 “remains a moderate possibility," but noted the risk is lower than at this time last year. Water levels on Lake Erie and the upper Great Lakes are also lower than a year ago, regulators said, but noted those lakes are "still very high” and would cause high inflows into Lake Ontario in the coming months.

"These expected high inflows, coupled with uncertain seasonal factors such as precipitation and snowpack runoff, cause a moderate risk of a high-water event in the Lake Ontario basin this spring,” LOSLRB said in a statement.

Lake Ontario water levels at last measure were about 244.5 feet, or nearly five feet below the record-high levels seen in recent years.

Lake Ontario water levels in 2017 surpassed its highest swells in more than 100 years of record keeping, leading to widespread flooding in Oswego County and elsewhere along the Great Lake and St. Lawrence River shorelines. Water levels remained high through much of 2018 but widespread flooding was avoided until late spring and early summer 2019, when water levels surpassed the 2017 highs and wrought damage throughout the Lake Ontario basin.

The Port City was awarded more than $12 million for improvements to Wright’s Landing Marina and the International Pier through the state Lake Ontario Resiliency and Economic Development Initiative (REDI) — a program spurred by widespread flood damage across the state that negatively impacted businesses and local sales tax revenues.

Oswego Mayor Billy Barlow, who has been a frequent critic of Plan 2014, said the city’s Wright’s Landing Marina renovation and upgrades to the Breitbeck Park Harbor Trail are complete, and those projects elevated the areas out of the flood zone and hardened the shoreline to “handle whatever water level comes.” Barlow said the Wright’s Landing upgrades were designed to handle the record-setting 249-foot water level from 2019.

That said, Barlow noted high water and flooding later this year could still be a serious hurdle for local economies already struggling with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Flooding this summer would only add to the pain already inflicted by COVID,” Barlow said, adding that the marina, which the mayor previously said would re-open in June, would be “open and operating as usual” due to the recent upgrades.

Barlow expressed empathy for communities and businesses along the lakeshore who may not have been able to complete their REDI projects or shoreline hardening work, but voiced confidence the Port City would be ready if another season of high water occurs.

The International Joint Commission (IJC), which oversees all shared U.S.-Canadian waterways and LOSLRB, came under fire from shoreline property owners and local officials following 2017 flooding, which came just a year after Plan 2014 was implemented.

Federal, state and local officials have panned Plan 2014 in recent years, calling it seriously flawed and demanding it be revised or rescinded. Officials have argued Plan 2014, which allows for higher highs and lower lows on Lake Ontario, is the main cause of the flooding, and many have engaged in a multi-year campaign to pressure international regulators to alter the water management plan.

“Plan 2014 sucked when it was conceived, it sucks now and it will suck until it is repealed,” Rep. John Katko, R-Camillus said in a recent interview with The Palladium-Times when asked whether or not high water levels remained a concern.  

Lake levels, while down from the 2017 and 2019 highs, are still high for some areas more susceptible to flooding, and Katko said he remains “very concerned” about the prospect of flooding in 2021 and beyond.

In recent years, the IJC and LOSLRB have often deviated from Plan 2014's prescribed outflows and avoided widespread flooding in 2020. The IJC in mid-February approved LOSLRB's request for continued authority to deviate from Plan 2014, if necessary, until Lake Ontario reaches its peak level this spring. Prior deviation authority was set to expire on Feb. 28, and the extended authority recently granted the Board would be applied if conditions worsen after March 1 and allow for outflows through the Moses-Saunders Dam to exceed Plan 2014 flows.

Katko argues regulators “are routinely deviating from the plan,” and cites that as evidence “the plan itself is not viable.” The Camillus Republican said "rigorous and robust oversight" of the IJC and LOSLRB and their execution of Plan 2014 are necessary, and promised that if Plan 2014 change required him to be "a thorn in their side,” then he’s ready to act in that role.

In a meeting with IJC Commissioner Jane Corwin earlier this month, Katko said he sounded "the alarm on the continued threat flooding poses to communities across Lake Ontario," and urged the agency to remain responsive to the needs of shoreline communities in the coming months.

Regulators said with the lower risk of reaching flood levels on Lake Ontario, deviation strategies are not likely to negatively impact commercial navigation in the St. Lawrence Seaway.

LOSLRB and IJC officials note if basin conditions become extremely wet like 2017 and 2019, there is no deviation strategy that would prevent high water levels and shoreline flooding, adding "eliminating such damages is beyond the reach of outflow regulation."

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