More water let out of Lake Ontario, but level remains higher than last year

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By Thomas J. Prohaska | Published March 2, 2018 | Updated March 2, 2018

More water has been let out of Lake Ontario than this time last year. But local emergency management officials still expect high water levels in coming months and are preparing for flooding along the shorelines in Niagara and Orleans counties.

"It's not going up as much as it was last year, but it's still going up," Jonathan F. Schultz, Niagara County emergency management director, said of the lake's water level.

Local officials, who are keeping a close eye on the lake's water level, still seethe about last spring's flooding that wreaked so much damage along eroded shorelines. They said the International Joint Commission, which regulates the lake's water level, waited too long to react.

Niagara County Legislator John Syracuse calls last year's floods "a government-caused disaster."

The commission calls it unlikely that last spring's combination of exceptional rainfall, snowmelt and rising inflows from Lake Erie will happen again this spring.

Still, the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board is letting far more water out than in 2017 and has been more active in adjusting the flow in recent months. The board, a subsidiary of the International Joint Commission, adjusts how much water can leave the lake past the dams at Massena to flow to the St. Lawrence River and from there to the Atlantic Ocean.

The board has adjusted the outflow 33 times since Jan. 1. By comparison, the board did so only 10 times in the first two months of 2017.

On Wednesday, the flow increased to 2.38 million gallons per second, the highest rate of the year. A year ago, the late-winter peak was 1.97 million gallons per second. The board last year didn't open the spigots as wide as they are now until May 17.

This year's outflows have not increased because of last year's criticism, said Frank Bevacqua, a spokesman for the International Joint Commission.

"The levels are higher than they were last year, so the plan is trying to discharge large amounts of water," he said.

Regulating Lake Ontario's water level

Water outflows increased on more days and in higher amounts the past two months than in the same period last year.

Note: Millions of gallons of water per second allowed to flow out of Lake Ontario from Jan. 20 to Feb. 28 in 2017 and 2018

The Buffalo News » Source: International Joint Commission-St. Lawrence River Board

REGULATING LAKE ONTARIO'S WATER LEVEL

Waters are a little higher than they were last year at this time.

The lake is two inches higher than it was in late February 2017, and it's a foot above the long-term average for this time of year, according to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers figures. The Corps forecasts Lake Ontario waters will rise two more inches in the next month, based on precipitation levels.

Ice conditions in the St. Lawrence are more conducive this year to allowing faster flows out of the lake, with the water running under stable surface ice, Bevacqua said. Last year, there was a risk of major ice jamming if the lake had emptied faster, he said.

But the water flowing into the lake last week, from precipitation and through the Niagara River and other streams, exceeded the managed outflows by 270,000 gallons every second, the IJC's website reported.

As of Jan. 1, the lake was 3.7 feet lower than its peak at the end of May, the fastest drop ever recorded. But it started to rise again because of rain and snow in January, causing the IJC to order the fastest outflows ever for the season.

"While Lake Ontario remains well above average, historically, winter water levels have not provided an accurate indicator of the peak later in spring," the IJC said in a recent news release. "Hydrologic conditions have a much greater influence, and while impossible to predict, it is unlikely that last spring's combination of exceptional rainfall, snowmelt and rapidly rising inflows from Lake Erie will all repeat themselves and lead to extremely high water levels again this year. Nonetheless, extreme conditions may occur in any given year, and when they do, the risk of extreme water levels cannot be substantially reduced through regulation of outflows."

Also, the agency balances problems on the New York shore with conditions in and around Montreal.

Last year, there was significant flooding in low-lying neighborhoods in and around Montreal, and right now, Lake St. Louis, near Montreal, is near capacity, Bevacqua said. Water levels in Montreal Harbor are above average, too.

"At some point in the future, it's guaranteed there will be another flood," Bevacqua said.

He didn't make a prediction about this year.

Schultz, the emergency management director in Niagara County, is preparing for the worst. The county already has stockpiled about 6,000 filled sandbags in the Newfane Highway Department garage, ready to be stacked where needed.

The county can draw on state stockpiles of equipment, ranging from pumps to sandbag-filling machines, stored in Hamburg or in Monroe County. Equipment can be on the scene in Niagara County within 12 hours of a request, Schultz said.

Orleans County Legislator Lynne M. Johnson blames the International Joint Commission's water-level control policy for Lake Ontario, called Plan 2014, for last year's flooding.

"With the lake levels being as they are, we're looking ahead to another devastating spring and summer because of Plan 2014," Johnson said.

The commission blamed the weather. 

"Last year, we had record rainfall in May, the second-highest ever in April," said Bevacqua, the commission spokesman.

There would have been flooding even under the old water-level policy, he said.

Lakeshore counties declared states of emergency last spring. Piers became submerged at Wilson and Olcott harbors.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo followed up with a state disaster declaration and mobilized state agencies to speed up permits for property owners to make repairs and install new protective structures in the lake.

But local officials were bitter last spring about what they saw as bureaucratic dawdling that led to months of high water and hundreds of water-damaged properties from Youngstown to Oswego.

“It takes five to seven days to drop our level one inch. It’s too late,” Niagara County Legislator David E. Godfrey said at the April 20 news conference to announce the county's state of emergency.

"They should have done it sooner," said Anthony W. McKenna, an Olcott resident and professional engineer who once served on a study committee for the IJC. Eventually, outflows were raised to 2.75 million gallons a second on June 14, and that figure wasn't changed until Aug. 8.

"Since its inception, I have warned that Plan 2014 would have devastating impacts on our shoreline property owners.  This past year confirms my concerns and makes clear that we need to get rid of Plan 2014 and implement a permanent solution for shoreline residents and business owners," Rep. Chris Collins said.

The U.S. and Canada each have three IJC seats. The American side has two members appointed by President Barack Obama - Lana Pollack of Michigan and Rich Moy of Montana - and one vacancy.

Collins and county lawmakers want President Trump to clean house at the commission because of Plan 2014 and the floods of 2017.

Collins said he is working with the Trump administration to bring in three new commissioners because of what he called "the failure in leadership of the IJC."