OSWEGO — Lake Ontario water levels are starting to stabilize, according to international regulators, but the waters hit a new record high this week and have increased steadily since late March.
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.
“Extraordinarily high outflows combined with forecasts of warmer, drier conditions later this week, make it likely that Lake Ontario is at or very near its peak level this year,” the IJC said in a release Thursday. “Any additional rise is likely to be small — less than 1 inch, depending on rainfall — and there is a good chance levels will remain stable or even start to decline slowly next week.”
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 further increases in outflows are expected in the near future, according to the IJC. 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.
Oswego Mayor Billy Barlow expressed relief that the city may now be through the worst of the flooding. Barlow, however, said local elected officials, homeowners, business owners and stakeholders must remain vocal and continue to express trouble and displeasure with Plan 2014, which was adopted by the IJC in 2016 and often blamed for the flooding experienced in 2017 and 2019.
“We need to continue pressing the IJC to better manage the plan, and I think talking about a repeal or revision is the best strategy at this point in time,” Barlow said. “With the amount of damage and destruction we saw this year, I think we, of course, certainly need money and additional resources to help rebuild and redesign our lakeshore, but it makes more sense to me to push for a revision of this disastrous plan.”
Barlow said at minimum, officials need assurances from the IJC that Plan 2014 would be better managed in the future. He called the damage seen this year “inexcusable.”
International regulators have continued to say extremely wet weather conditions and record inflows from Lake Erie and other tributaries are the cause of record high water levels on Lake Ontario
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers this week said preliminary data indicates new record high monthly mean water levels were set on Lake Erie, Lake Superior and Lake St. Clair in the month of May, and record high water levels are possible on all the Great Lakes this summer.
“Persistent wet conditions across the Great Lakes basin this spring has fueled recent rises,” the Army Corps of Engineers said. “Precipitation in May was 21 percent higher than average over the Great Lakes basin as a whole, and contributed to extremely high water supplies to the lakes.”
The Army Corps said the new record levels registered in May are between one and three inches higher than the previous highs for the month, which were set in 1986.
“As we expected, record highs were set in May on a few of our Great Lakes, and our June forecast shows additional record highs likely this summer,” said Keith Kompoltowicz, chief of Watershed Hydrology, Detroit District.
The threat of coastal flooding and shoreline erosion in the Great Lakes Region is expected to continue, especially during storm events, according to the Army Corps, which noted localized water levels are impacted by winds and can be significantly higher during storm events.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other officials have called the high water conditions a “new normal,” saying it’s time for officials to “acknowledge the obvious” and continue to expect high water levels. IJC officials, however, called that notion into question this week.
The IJC said this week that “extreme high levels are never normal,” but noted high water has occurred in the past and would occur in the future. In a Thursday release, the IJC said “the new normal is that we must make the preparations for the next event a part of everyday practice and planning,” despite the difficulty in knowing how soon the next event would occur.
“The primary causes of high water levels are always the same — wet weather,” the IJC said in a Thursday release. “Record precipitation caused the record high water levels in 2017, and it led to record inflows from Lake Erie and the Ottawa River system, resulting in new record highs this year.”
Inflows and other such conditions are “uncontrolled and highly unpredictable,” the IJC said.
Port City officials said earlier this week the rising waters are jeopardizing shoreline infrastructure and breaching the breakwater that protects the Oswego Harbor, but the rising waters are not likely to threaten residents or city streets.
Barlow said the city is making the best out of an unfortunate situation and has the resources to manage the current circumstances, and encouraged visitors and residents to continue activities as normal.
Gov. Cuomo in May 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.
Democratic New York Senator Charles Schumer, the senate minority leader, announced plans Friday to tour damaged areas along Lake Ontario next week and launch a major push to fund a coastal resiliency study to protect the shoreline from future flooding.
Schumer has been calling on the federal government to fund the so-called Great Lakes Coastal Resiliency Study in recent years. The study is aimed at identifying vulnerable areas on the Great Lakes’ shorelines and recommend protections for lakeshore infrastructure.
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 in 2017 and much of the damage is reoccurring as the waters rise again. Barlow this month was forced to announce the closure of Wright’s Landing Marina due to potentially dangerous conditions resulting from the high waters.
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.