Lake Ontario peaks below historic flood levels

In this May 2, 2017 file photo, Rob Bauman arranges sandbags along the banks of Lake Ontario. International regulators say the lake has peaked for 2020 and should avoid flooding like that experienced in 2017 and 2019.

OSWEGO — The Lake Ontario water level has peaked for 2020, according to international regulators, and the widespread flooding experienced in recent years is not expected to return this summer.

The International Joint Commission (IJC) — the binational organization that oversees shared U.S.-Canadian waterways — announced Lake Ontario “peaked early this year” at 247.38 feet on May 5, roughly 4 inches below the 247.7 feet flood stage and more than 20 inches lower than the 2019 record high of 249.08 feet. According to the IJC and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), levels have since fallen another 2.4 inches, and are expected to continue to decline throughout the summer.

A summer without flooding would be a welcome reprieve for the Lake Ontario shoreline communities and businesses that rely heavily on tourism revenue.

Shoreline property owners over the past three years have become familiar with rising water, constructing sandbag barriers and installing other property protections.

Water levels on the easternmost Great Lake reached a then record-high 248.95 feet on May 25, 2017, and water levels remained above 248 feet for 89 days, from May 3 to July 31. Officials called it once-in-a-lifetime flooding, but just over two years later a new record-high would be set.

The 2017 high water mark was matched on May 30, 2019, and the lake continued rising for another week before hitting a new record-high 249.08 feet on June 6. The record high was reached on three more dates that year, the last of which was June 15.

The Great Lake spent 94 days above 248 feet in 2019, from May 10 to August 12. Water levels exceeded 249 feet — a level that had never been reached before in more than 100 years of record keeping — for more than a month, from June 2 to July 7.

Many have blamed the IJC and the water management strategy known as Plan 2014 for the flooding and subsequent damage, pointing out the plan was implemented just prior to the 2017 flooding. Local, state and federal officials have pointed the finger at the IJC and blamed Plan 2014 for the flooding, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo at one point directing state agencies to file a lawsuit against the IJC seeking damages.

The IJC and other experts have continually said historic amounts of precipitation and high water on the western Great Lakes, which flow eastward into Lake Ontario before entering the St. Lawrence River, are to blame. IJC officials said last year “no plan” could have prevented the historic floods.

Plan 2014 prescribes outflows through the Moses-Saunders Dam near Massena, largely based on the water levels upstream and downstream and the time of year.

Throughout late 2019 and 2020, the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board (LOSLRB) — which is overseen by the IJC and sets outflows through the Moses-Saunders — has been given authority to deviate from the prescribed outflows set forth in Plan 2014 to remove more water from Lake Ontario.

Under that deviation strategy, regulators have released high amounts of water from the lake throughout 2020, but late last week LOSLRB noted the deviation authority, which was initially granted in October, has expired. In a statement, the board said it is no longer releasing outflows above those prescribed by Plan 2014.

LOSLRB officials, however, pointed to drier conditions around Lake Ontario and in the Ottawa and lower St. Lawrence River basins as the main driver of lower lake levels.   

“These are the primary reasons for the recent decline in Lake Ontario levels, which has occurred despite very high inflows from the extremely high upper Great Lakes,” the organization said in a release. “These high inflows will continue for the foreseeable future and, in response, Plan 2014 will continue to prescribe very high outflows, which will enhance Lake Ontario’s seasonal decline.”

Despite regulators’ forecasts indicating Lake Ontario has peaked for the year, frequent IJC critic Mayor Billy Barlow said he still expects water levels to rise throughout the rest of spring and summer.

“All four of the upper Great Lakes are well above average and that water will be draining and heading our way,” Barlow said. “Plus they’ll be going back to Plan 2014, which is never good news.”

Barlow said “the only reason” the area isn’t currently flooded is because the IJC granted LOSLRB authority to deviate from Plan 2014 and allow more water to be released. He said the success in lowering the lake level via deviating from Plan 2014 is further proof of the strategy’s failures.

The Port City recently started several shoreline projects, including improvements to Wright’s Landing Marina and the International Pier, that were funded in part through the state Lake Ontario Resiliency and Economic Development Initiative (REDI).

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