ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced up to $300 million in funding for communities impacted by Lake Ontario flooding Monday at the first meeting of a state commission aimed at creating a more resilient shoreline.
Cuomo made the announcement in Rochester at the first meeting of the Lake Ontario Resiliency and Economic Development Initiative, or REDI, that was formed less than two weeks ago. State leadership has called the flooding, which has occurred two of the past three years, a “new normal,” and said shoreline communities must prepare for high waters in the future.
"We have a major challenge ahead of us,” Cuomo said Monday. “This situation with Lake Ontario is not a once in a lifetime event, and the question is now not if it happens again, but when it happens again."
Lake Ontario waters reached 249.08 feet on June 6 — the highest point in more than 100 years of record keeping — surpassing the 248.95 feet record set in 2017, according to International Joint Commission (IJC) data that dates back to 1918. The IJC, which regulates shared waterways between the U.S. and Canada, said this week any further rise in the water level is expected to be less than 1 inch, and the lake could even start to decline over the next week.
Members of the REDI commission, the governor and more than 250 state and local officials from Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River communities gathered Monday to formulate plans to reduce the risk of damage to shoreline infrastructure. Waterfront communities rely heavily on tourism, state officials said, noting shoreline resiliency projects should include measures to strengthen local economies.
Local leaders started outlining infrastructure and economic development priorities to state officials, who will ultimately award funding for certain projects, at Monday’s meeting.
Oswego Mayor Billy Barlow called Cuomo’s approach “the right approach,” and said REDI provides another great opportunity to the city of Oswego. Barlow said the city would be “very aggressive” in pursuing funding through the initiative and use previously established plans from a 2016 waterfront feasibility study.
“My main priority will be to totally repair the international pier and repair it in such a way that it can be developed,” the mayor said Monday, adding the community is lucky to have a pier and should better capitalize on the unique piece of property. “I’ll also focus on repair and continuing to develop Wright’s Landing. We already have some nice projects underway, but with this additional funding we can take the marina to the next level offering a more interactive and engaging experience to more than just boaters.”
Local governments seeking REDI funding will be required to contribute a 15 percent match for each dollar the state spends. According to a press release from Gov. Cuomo’s office, local municipalities must submit funding requests and project proposals to the REDI commission before Labor Day.
Assemblyman Will Barclay, R-Pulaski, who attended the Monday meeting, said he is pleased the governor has recognized the “catastrophic flooding” along the lakeshore, which has now exceeded 2017 levels, and is happy Cuomo is offering up to $300 million to restore and rebuild shoreline infrastructure.
“I think we’re all moving in a positive, bipartisan direction to provide relief to property owners and municipalities along the eastern part of Lake Ontario,” Barclay said.
Barclay, however, said criteria to determine which types of projects would be funded must still be worked out, and noted there is some concern about the 15 percent match required from local governments, which could cause financial stress on some of the smaller municipalities along the lake.
Cuomo said the REDI commission is set to take “unprecedented action,” noting the state and local communities must partner together to “do the kind of resiliency and economic development work that we have to do.”
“It’s going to take everyone working together,” the governor said. “It’s going to take us pushing the envelope. It’s going to take significant resources.”
Dating back to 2017, flooding along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River has caused widespread shoreline erosion, damaged infrastructure and devastated small business and coastal property owners. Since 2017, the state has spent more than $100 million to rebuild infrastructure along the lakeshore that is now being damaged again due to record high water levels.
"We are launching a bold effort to protect homes, businesses, and people's livelihoods along the Lake Ontario shoreline by using the power of government and working in partnership with local communities," Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul said Monday. "We have a responsibility to be stewards of the lake and ensure we build back stronger and smarter for the future."
Between May 6 and June 6, Lake Ontario rose nearly 16 inches after climbing 19 inches between April and May. Waters are now roughly 34 inches higher than average for this time of year and more than 1.5 inches above the highest point of 2017.
According to the IJC, Lake Ontario is stabilizing due to decreased precipitation and increased outflows through the Moses-Saunders Dam. Ottawa River flows have dropped significantly since a record high in late April, allowing outflows through the dam to increase to 357,700 cubic feet per second (cfs) this week, the highest since August 2017.
Outflows have increased daily since mid-May, and the net total supply — the weekly average flow into Lake Ontario — has also fallen to 353,500 cfs, down from a peak of 431,200 cfs in mid-May.
Cuomo called on the IJC to take immediate action over the weekend, and the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board (ILOSLRB), which is overseen by the IJC and manages outflows through the Moses-Saunders Dam, announced outflows would continue to increase “to provide relief to shoreline interests on Lake Ontario.”
Outflows reached 360,200 cfs over the weekend and the ILOSLRB plans to increase outflows by 1,760 cfs per day through June 13, when the flow will equal the maximum sustained flow on record. ILOSLRB officials plan to continue exploring further increases based on conditions.
The state also launched a new website, www.ny.gov/programs/lake-ontario-floooding, to connect flood-impacted communities with information.