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Continued flexibility allowed in setting Lake Ontario outflows

Communities along the southern shore of Lake Ontario have seen two extreme flooding events in three years.
Veronica Volk
Communities along the southern shore of Lake Ontario have seen two extreme flooding events in three years.

The board that helps regulate the level of Lake Ontario says it will continue to have some flexibility in taking steps that may help ease potential flooding along the shoreline.

The International Lake Ontario – St. Lawrence River Board helps control the level of the waterways through a dam on the St. Lawrence.

The board has been allowed to let out more water from Lake Ontario than regulations call for in recent months, because of the high level of the lake. The International Joint Commission is allowing that variance to continue until June of 2020.

Bryce Carmichael is secretary for the U.S. section of the lake board, and he says the IJC is trying to do what it can to help prevent flooding.

“They are wanting to be proactive and do everything possible to help reduce to the extent they can, the water levels on Lake Ontario in preparation for the spring water supplies,” Carmichael said.

But Carmichael emphasizes that while adjusting the flow of water out of the lake can help somewhat, it is still the overall weather pattern, including rainfall and snowmelt that has the biggest impact.

“There’s, of course, the factors that I indicated: the high water levels on Lake Erie and the above average water levels on Lake Ontario that give us an indication that there is a credible, I guess you could credible threat for high water levels in 2020, which is why we’re taking this proactive approach, but any given year, you could always have flooding,” Carmichael explained.

Right now, Lake Ontario is about a foot-and-a-half higher than its long term average, and Carmichael says that Lake Erie, which feeds into Lake Ontario, is about three feet above its long term average for water levels.

New York state recently expanded a lawsuit it filed against the International Joint Commission over the way that agency has regulated lake levels.

New York’s governor and attorney general have said that the IJC failed to act in response to flooding in 2017 and 2019, causing New York to incur substantial and potentially avoidable damages.

Senator Chuck Schumer on Friday released a letter he sent to officials with the St. Lawrence Seaway calling on them to take immediate steps to help prevent more flooding next year. The Democratic Minority Leader of  the U.S. Senate from New York wants the Seaway officials to reinstate requirements that shipping companies use all safety precautions available so that water outflows through the Moses-Saunders Dam can be increased.

Randy Gorbman is WXXI's director of news and public affairs. Randy manages the day-to-day operations of WXXI News on radio, television, and online.