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Record outflows from Lake Ontario not lowering water levels enough

Water from Lake Ontario is released into the St. Lawrence River through the Moses Saunders Power Dam in Massena
Veronica Volk
Great Lakes Today
Water from Lake Ontario is released into the St. Lawrence River through the Moses Saunders Power Dam in Massena

The international body that helps regulate water levels on Lake Ontario and in the St. Lawrence River is forecasting a return to flood-level heights this summer.

Officials released a record amount of water from Lake Ontario through the Moses Saunders Dam last month and into the beginning of February. The issue is there's also a record amount of water flowing into Lake Ontario from the Great Lakes system.

Bryce Carmichael with the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board said it's hampering the board's efforts to avoid a repeat of 2019's unprecedented flooding.

"We plan to continue maximizing outflows through Moses Saunders Dam to try to mitigate some of that risk, but we are looking at our forecasts indicating a good-percentage chance that we will have high water that would cause negative impacts to shoreline property owners and residents," Carmichael said.

Carmichael says there's a 50% chance Lake Ontario will reach 247 feet this summer, which he says is enough to cause impacts in some low-lying communities.

The good news, said Carmichael, is the Board's forecast only shows a slim 5% chance that Lake Ontario will reach 249 feet, which was last year's peak. But out of an abundance of caution, the Board is currently looking into whether it should deviate from a limit on how much water it can send downstream to Montreal.

"The Board continues to look for all possible options under the current deviation authority it has been given by the International Joint Commission to maximize flows and take every opportunity to get water off of Lake Ontario," he said.

At least one community along the lake shore has already declared a state of emergency over the high water levels this winter. The village of Sodus Point, in Wayne County, is one of the lowest-lying locations along the shore. In a statement, Sodus Point Mayor Dave McDowell said that there is no imminent threat of flooding at this time, but he wants to be proactive.

"The reason for the SOE is so that we and others that we request can legally enter private property. We need to assess the height and condition of the existing sand bag walls and break walls. That will give us the information needed to know how many sand bags are needed and where," McDowell said. "Once we have that we can determine how many work groups for placing over what timeframe. It also allows us to order NYS assets needed to execute our plan. Our plan is engaged based on water levels, not the calendar.  This is early but the water levels have reached 246.5’ which is when our plan kicks in."

Water levels on Lake Ontario have risen more than 6 inches over the last month. Late winter and early spring are when water levels tend to rise quickly, due to rain and snow melt. 

Copyright 2020 WRVO

Payne Horning is a reporter and producer, primarily focusing on the city of Oswego and Oswego County. He has a passion for covering local politics and how it impacts the lives of everyday citizens. Originally from Iowa, Horning moved to Muncie, Indiana to study journalism, telecommunications and political science at Ball State University. While there, he worked as a reporter and substitute host at Indiana Public Radio. He also covered the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly for the statewide Indiana Public Broadcasting network.