OSWEGO — Lawmakers from all levels of government are urging regulators to take any action possible to prevent a repeat of the historic 2017 Lake Ontario flooding, with county officials Tuesday making their own plea to the international body that controls water outflows.
Lake Ontario water levels are currently higher than the early-March levels experienced two years ago prior to the floods and in response, federal, state and local lawmakers in recent weeks have sent pointed letters to international regulators.
The most recent data from the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board (ILOSLRB), which monitors and regulates water levels on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, shows current water levels on Lake Ontario are slightly higher than March 2017, but outflows from Lake Ontario are significantly greater than outflows at this time two years ago.
The county Economic, Development and Planning Committee Tuesday approved a resolution urging the International Joint Commission (IJC) — a bi-national body that governs the shared waterways between the United States and Canada and oversees the ILOSLRB — to maximize outflows through the Moses-Saunders Dam near Messena.
The resolution notes the Army Corps of Engineers is forecasting Lake Ontario to rise another two feet by June, which would bring water levels just one foot below the high water mark during the 2017 floods.
“The lake is high and getting higher,” said Legislator Tim Stahl, R-Oswego Town, who chairs the committee. “Two years ago we saw the absolute devastation that the IJC-regulated higher water levels caused. Although it’s very difficult to determine how much of that damage can be attributed to controllable factors, I believe that action must be taken to maximize the outflows from Lake Ontario.”
Water levels have risen six inches in the past month and the lake is roughly 15 inches above the historical average for this time of year. Lake Ontario water levels are roughly 246 feet, about three feet below the highest levels in May 2017.
State officials, including Assemblyman Brian Manktelow, R-Lyons, and Assemblyman Will Barclay, R-Pulaski, last month called on federal representatives to stabilize water levels and prevent future flooding. Following suit, New York’s Democratic senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer late last week called on the IJC to take all available actions to mitigate the risk of flooding.
“After experiencing record flooding in 2017, Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River communities are once again being threatened with rising water levels — so it is critical for the IJC to do all they can now to prevent flooding,” Schumer said. “We must act now to prevent a repeat of 2017.”
Gillibrand called the 2017 flooding “devastating” and said communities must be protected.
“With water levels in Lake Ontario reaching such high levels at this time of the year, we need to do everything we can to mitigate future flood risk ahead of time,” she said.
Rep. John Katko, R-Camillus, and Rep. Anthony Brindisi, R-Utica, in a joint statement Tuesday called on the IJC to immediately mitigate flood risks. The pair asked regulators to outline a course of action and report any factors preventing a response to rising water levels.
“In addition to threatening the lives of families throughout the region, continued flooding would only cause further destruction and cripple communities that are already struggling to respond to existing damage,” the congressmen wrote.
The ILOSLRB specifies outflows from Lake Ontario in accordance with Plan 2014, which was adopted by the U.S. and Canada as part of an effort to improve environmental conditions and balance other interests. Plan 1958-D, the previous agreement, was in use for more than 50 years.
Lakeshore property owners and others have argued Plan 2014 exacerbated the heavy rains of 2017 and caused or increased flooding along the shores of Lake Ontario.
Officials from the IJC say water levels vary from year-to-year and throughout the year depending on weather and water supply conditions. Variations in water levels benefit coastal wetlands and are critical to a healthy lake environment, according to the IJC, but may at times increase the vulnerability of shoreline structures.
IJC Public Information Officer Frank Bevacqua said Monday outflows from Lake Ontario remain “very high” and continue to be gradually increased in response to rising water levels on the lake and high inflows from Lake Erie.
“Other than a brief pause, to allow ice to form on the St. Lawrence River in January, outflows have generally been increasing since October 2018,” Bevacqua said, noting it follows many months of high outflows dating back to the extreme high water event of 2017.
Bevacqua said outflow as of Monday was 307,200 cubic feet per second — one of the highest outflows for this time of year since 1960. Bevacqua said the outflows are set in accordance with Plan 2014 and consider the effects of various interests throughout the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River system.
“The regulation plan is calling for these high outflows due to several factors,” Bevacqua said, adding the most significant factor is the high water levels of both Lake Ontario and Lake Erie.
The Niagara River connects Lake Erie to Lake Ontario with no controls on the flow of water. The IJC says precipitation on the lake and within its drainage basin can be a major contributor of water entering Lake Ontario.
“These uncontrolled, natural water supply conditions are the primary factor that determines Lake Ontario water levels,” Bevacqua said. “As a result, regulation of outflows cannot control the water levels of Lake Ontario, only influence them, and conditions throughout the St. Lawrence River must also be considered.”
Lake Ontario water levels in early-March 2018 were also higher than 2017 and notably were not followed by significant flooding. Though lake levels are high, regulators say the 2017 events were caused mainly by heavy rainfall in April and May not high winter lake levels.
Lake Ontario water levels spiked drastically in April 2017 due to historic precipitation, reaching a peak in May and June.
IJC officials say the ILOSLRB continues to monitor conditions, publishing information and supporting data on its website and Facebook page.