Lake Ontario

Lake Ontario water levels exceeded 249 feet this week, the highest level in more than 100 years of record keeping. 

OSWEGO — The water levels on Lake Ontario exceeded the record high set in 2017 late last week and have continued to rise in recent days, causing city officials to say Monday the high waters are now breaching the breakwater designed to protect the Oswego Harbor.

Lake Ontario waters reached 249.02 feet — the highest point in more than 100 years of record keeping — surpassing the 248.95 feet record set in 2017, according to the International Joint Commission (IJC), which regulates shared waterways between the U.S. and Canada. Local officials said the rising waters are jeopardizing shoreline infrastructure and breaching the breakwater that protects the Oswego Harbor, but not likely to threaten residents or city streets.

Port City officials Monday said — despite the high waters — the situation is under control and the city largely remains open for business and recreation.

“We’re not going to have water flowing down Bridge Street,” Fire Chief Randy Griffin told reporters at a Monday morning press briefing, despite forecasts suggesting the water level could continue to rise for nearly a month. “The good news for the city of Oswego is that the city of Oswego is open for business.”

Mayor Billy Barlow encouraged visitors and residents to continue activities as normal Monday, noting despite the challenging conditions boaters still have access to the waterfront and the establishments lining the Oswego River. Barlow said the city is making the best out of an unfortunate situation and has the resources to manage the current circumstances. 

“Boating traffic is still permitted in the Oswego Harbor and folks are welcome to travel by land to our waterfront and the city has the situation fully under control,” the mayor said. “We want visitors and residents alike to still visit our lakefront area and acknowledge the progressive projects under construction and our waterfront.”

The IJC said Monday the lake would continue to rise gradually over the next several days and is expected to peak within one to three weeks. IJC officials said the increased water level would be driven mainly be precipitation across the Lake Ontario basin, and the most likely scenarios forecast an additional 0.8 to 3.1 inches.

Both Gov. Cuomo and Oswego County Legislature Chairman James Weatherup, R-Central Square, have declared a state of emergency in the area. Barlow said the city has not followed suit because the city has thus far been able to handle the challenges posed by the conditions.   

Despite the record high lake levels and the expectation waters will continue to rise over the next several weeks, Griffin said Monday officials do not expect the damage to get worse in Oswego.

“The damage that’s been done has been done,” he said. “And another inch isn’t going to make a big impact for us.”

Property owners and local officials have been bracing for potential flooding for more than a month, and watched as the waters have crept upward daily and now sit roughly 1.5 feet higher than a month ago.

Until recently, the city largely dodged major destruction as no significant storms or waves had hit the area and combined with the high water to produce damage, but the luck ran out over the weekend with waves pummeling the shoreline. 

Lake Ontario’s record high water level set Monday is about 0.84 inches above the previous record set two years ago, and more than 33 inches above average for this time of year. The IJC data tracking the lake’s water levels dates back to 1918. 

The historic flooding of 2017 saw Lake Ontario peak May 25 at 248.95 feet where it remained throughout the final days of May before steadily declining to 248.62 feet by the end of June, according to IJC data. Last year, in contrast, the lake reached a peak of 247.05 feet on May 22.

Port City infrastructure, including the marinas, parks and the pier were devastated by high water and wave action, which compounds the damage, in 2017 and much of the damage is reoccurring as the waters rise again. Griffin highlighted some of the areas damaged, including Wright’s Landing Marina and the International Pier, both of which have suffered significant erosion and other damages.

Griffin, however, noted areas such as Sodus Bay and Sandy Pond have seen far more devastation, as the rising waters have swallowed homes and shoreline property.

Barlow announced the closure of the Wright’s Landing Marina late last week due to potentially dangerous conditions resulting from the high waters. He said Monday the closure was due in large part to wind and waves forecasted over the weekend, and a desire to give boaters ample time to react. 

“We’ll certainly see some damage accumulate if we get a significant amount of wind and waves pounding the shoreline,” Barlow said. “As the breakwall’s protection at this point is negligible, leaving our shoreline and marina virtually unprotected.”

Griffin pointed out Gov. Andrew Cuomo and others have said the high waters on Lake Ontario is likely the new normal, and the fire chief said he hopes the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers has heard that message.

City officials are concerned the limited protection the breakwater offers with the high water could lead to more significant damage in the future. 

“Because unfortunately this breakwall was not build to support 248 feet of lake level,” Griffin said. “The water, with just a slight wind, is enough to overtake that and its really providing limited, if any, protection to our harbor.”

Funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to assist in rebuilding infrastructure damaged in 2017 is just now starting to trickle in to the city, officials have said, noting if high water is expected annually it could be a monumental task to rebuild shoreline infrastructure to handle such conditions.

“It would take a lot to take this marina and build it up another foot or two foot,” Griffin said of Wright’s Landing. “And the expense of doing that all over the city would be tremendous.”

Gov. Cuomo last week proposed a commission — dubbed the Lake Ontario Resiliency and Economic Development Initiative (REDI) — to develop plans to harden shoreline infrastructure and strengthen the local economies of lakeshore communities. 

Cuomo said it’s time for officials to “acknowledge the obvious” and continue to expect high water levels. In addition to providing immediate support and assistance to those currently impacted by high water, Cuomo said the state must strategically rebuild shoreline infrastructure.

The state spent more than $100 million to repair damages in 2017, Cuomo said, adding unless fate intervenes the costs would continue to pile up year after year. He said hardening shoreline infrastructure would be a “very large undertaking,” but a worthwhile and cost-effective approach in the long term. 

“Rather than spending $100 million every few years to rebuild and repair, I would rather spend more money once and actually invest in a better facility than won’t be damaged,” the governor said.

Barlow expressed approval of Cuomo’s proposal and applauded the governor for his efforts to help shoreline communities.

“This strategy makes total sense,” the mayor said. “With several projects about to launch here in Oswego, we are already doing this to a certain extent, and it sounds like this initiative can provide even more resources to us to both recover from the flood damage and build back in a way that complements our vision and goals.”

Newly appointed members of the IJC have been touring affected areas and conducting listening sessions with elected officials, according to an IJC spokesperson, but Barlow said the organization had not reached out to his office.

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