OSWEGO — Lake Ontario water levels started the year higher than any of the previous three years, two of which resulted in significant shoreline flooding, causing concern among state, local and federal officials and prompting international regulators to take a number of actions to reduce the chance of flooding.
Lake Ontario reached a more than 100-year high of 249.08 feet in June last year after setting a previous record high in May 2017, and the Great Lake starts 2020 with higher water levels than either 2017 or 2019. Extensive shoreline flooding experienced in 2017 and 2019 has residents and local officials on edge, as Lake Ontario started 2020 with some of the highest water levels in the 100 years on record, and shoreline property owners and businesses brace for a potential repeat of last year’s record-high water levels.
The International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board (LOSLRB) said outflows through the Moses-Saunders Dam are at record highs and a series of other actions are being taken to curb the potential impacts of high water later in the year.
LOSLRB spokesperson Bryce Carmichael confirmed Thursday that water levels on Lake Ontario to start the year were higher than in 2017 or 2019, adding “all the Great Lakes water levels started 2020 higher than their levels of Jan. 1, 2019.”
“We are very concerned about the potential for high water in 2020 and we’re taking every proactive measure we can to ensure we’re lowering the risk of high water,” Carmichael told The Palladium-Times, noting officials are continuing to monitor all conditions and discuss all options for moving water through the system.
LOSLRB officials are closely tracking water levels and taking a number of steps in an effort to reduce the flood risk later this year, Carmichael said, including record-high outflows throughout January and much of the preceding months.
Oswego Mayor Billy Barlow also expressed concern, saying this week city officials are anticipating water levels “as high or even higher than 2019,” and being more proactive in their attempts to mitigate damage and keep facilities like Wright’s Landing Marina open despite potentially high waters. Barlow the said the city did everything it could to keep the marina open and reopen it as soon as possible last year, but officials could only do so much.
“We intend to do the same thing this year, but if the water level is the same height or higher I expect many of the same issues we experienced last summer,” the mayor said.
The Lake Ontario water level started 2020 at roughly 246.10 feet, according to data from LOSLRB. The Jan. 1 water level was more than 18.5 inches above average to start the year and only about 7 inches less than the highest levels recorded on that date in 1946.
The latest data available from Jan. 21 shows the water level at 246.33 feet, more than 20 inches above average and only about 5 inches from the 1946 record-high for this time of year.
January water level, however, is not a definitive indicator of future flooding. Carmichael said high January levels are “not necessarily a concrete indicator” that shoreline communities would see a repeat of 2019 conditions, but noted it is “an indication the chances are high we see high water and impacts from flooding this year.”
The Lake Ontario at the start of 2020 was about 9 inches higher than the start of 2019, and almost 21 inches higher than the start of 2017. Flooding is far from a certainty, however, as the water level in 2018 started more than 11 inches higher than 2017 and less than 1 inch below 2019 — both of which resulted in extensive flooding— but did not result in widespread shoreline damage.
In 2017, the Jan. 1 water level was more than 2 inches below average, but historically high inflows and precipitation caused a roughly 3 foot increase between early March and the then-record high water level of 248.95 feet set May 25.
The following year started with high water, but the lake peaked at 247.05 feet in late May — about 9.5 inches above the historical annual peak. Prior to the historic flooding of 2019, the year closely mirrored 2018 until water levels dramatically spiked starting in April, rising more than 3 feet before peaking at 249.08 feet — the highest level in more than 100 years of record keeping — for the first time on June 6.
Rep. Anthony Brindisi, D-Utica, who last year announced a campaign to flood the IJC with letters demanding action and answers, said it’s unacceptable the IJC is not meeting its own metrics for water levels.
“The IJC has a responsibility to businesses, property owners and the communities at large around Lake Ontario to do their job,” Brindisi said earlier this week. “The flooding in recent years shows that the IJC is clueless on how to manage the water flow and, unfortunately, it looks like they are doing more of the same this year.”
Barlow said this week the city and other shoreline communities are “at the mercy of the IJC at this point,” and outside keeping pressure on the agency and sharing the negative impact high water is having on residents lives there’s not much more local officials can do.
“Even then, the IJC, through their false and contradictory statements, isn’t listening and have no desire to change or suspend (Plan 2014),” Barlow said. “It’s frustrating but it’s the reality.”
Barlow expressed gratitude to Gov. Cuomo and the state Legislature for allocating and awarding funding in an attempt “to make the best of this disastrous situation.” The city was awarded millions of dollars in funding to revamp the International Pier and improve Wright’s Landing Marina as part of Cuomo’s Lake Ontario Resiliency and Economic Development Initiative (REDI).
The IJC recently responded to Brindisi’s letters after more than two months, saying regulators “recognize the severe human and financial impacts that homeowners, businesses and municipalities have endured.” The IJC called its influence over water levels “limited” in a December 23 letter, and said it continued to direct the maximum safe outflows “to provide all possible relief from current conditions and to reduce, to the extent possible, the very real potential for flooding next year.”
Brindisi said he’s continuing to work with colleagues, including Rep. John Katko, R-Camillus, to hold the IJC accountable, and is currently seeking a meeting with IJC commissioners in Washington, D.C.
“We are looking at every way possible to fight back and protect these communities,” the Utica Democrat said. “The unelected bureaucrats at the IJC need to answer our questions, address the high water flows and start listening to the communities in our area.”
Carmichael said LOSLRB officials have received authority from the International Joint Commission — the bi-national body that oversees shared U.S.-Canadian waterways and the LOSLRB — to continue deviating from the outflows set forth in Plan 2014. He said the board is considering a variety of other strategies to curb high water.
LOSLRB officials could increase outflows to historic levels in the timeframe following the ice cover melting and prior to commercial navigation beginning, Carmichael said, calling it “an opportunity to maximize higher flows.”
Carmichael reiterated “the main driver of water levels is going to be the natural inflows to the system,” and noted there’s not a high level of certainty on the amount of precipitation the Great Lakes Basin will experience in the coming month. The current lack of snow pack in the region is positive, he said, but it’s difficult to know what the impact or benefit of that might be in the future.
“It’s not a guarantee that lower snow pack means a better outlook,” Carmichael said. “It’s one of the conditions we’re monitoring and it’s a positive so far, but we’ll know more in the next month.”
Perhaps of greater concern is the near record-high water levels on Lake Erie, which makes up for roughly 85 percent of the total water supply coming into Lake Ontario.
New York Democratic senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand earlier this week called on the Army Corps of Engineers to advance a firs-of-its kind resiliency blueprint to protect Great Lakes shorelines from future flooding. Schumer and Gillibrand for several years have been calling for the so-called Great Lakes Coastal Resiliency Study, which would identify vulnerable areas along the Great Lakes and recommend shoreline protections.