Great Lakes levels have Lake Ontario communities concerned for spring

Feb 14, 2020

The Army Corps of Engineers reports that four of the five Great Lakes were at record-high water levels this week. That has leaders of some Niagara County communities worried about the coming months, when those waters will make their way into an already high Lake Ontario.

Lake Ontario's water level in the month of January 2020 was nine inches higher than the previous January.  Town of Wilson Supervisor Doyle Phillips told WBFO earlier this week that lake levels around his municipality peaked at 249.2 feet above sea level. He has heard speculation that the water could rise to 250 feet above sea level later this year.

"Our boat launch and docks were approximately 18 inches to two feet last year," said Phillips about their flooded facilities.

Meanwhile in the Town of Newfane, Supervisor Timothy Horanburg was watching updated data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Tides and Currents Olcott station. He was also busy preparing updated paperwork for New York State's Resiliency and Economic Development Initiative, or REDI, a program formed last year to provide financial support for strengthening the lakeshore, in order to preserve businesses and economies along it.

One such economy is that of Olcott, a hamlet within the Town of Newfane, which features shops, restaurants, a seasonal carousel and additional seasonal amusements including vintage 25-cent skee ball games.

"We're small-town America. You get the whole feel of the hot dog and the ice cream cone and, you know, everybody's friendly here," said business owner Karen Young. "You just get to relax and kind of take a step back and you know, breathe for a minute and all of that still happens here."

Young and fellow business owner Kristin Teeter met WBFO at Lakeview Village Shoppes, a small cluster of specialty, gift and food vendors overlooking Lake Ontario. They run their respective businesses there and were in the process of shuffling locations in advance of the Shoppes' May 2 season opening. Those businesses, as well as the nearby carousel and other attractions, were open throughout last spring and summer. But Horanburg says overall business was down, because Olcott Beach was closed as the result of higher Lake Ontario water levels. With the beach was closed, he explained, many would-be customers assumed the other attractions were closed, too.

"Usually when people come to Olcott, they come for the whole package. You know, the beach, the ride park, the shops. If you take one part of that equation away, it hurts," he said. "And that's an important part of that equation."

Last year, Horanburg led Governor Andrew Cuomo on a tour of the Village of Olcott, where he showed how crews were pumping flood waters from overrun sewers in lower-lying areas near the beach, and using a retention pond to collect water. When the pond reached its full capacity, the water would be pumped out, back into Lake Ontario. It was a process Horanburg admits is a mere short-term band-aid solution. But a greater problem, he pointed out to WBFO, is that while Albany has come through with REDI funds to fix flooding problems, the water level has remained too high to begin work.

"It's a no-win situation and, on top of that, our public works department on the highway are spending half their summer down there, when they should be doing other things," Horanburg said. "It's an issue. We can't even solve the problem of getting the water out of there. We we've learned a lot in the last three years but I can say if it gets any higher, we're gonna have to learn some more. And we're gonna have to do some more."

New York State is currently suing the International Joint Commission, a bi-national body responsible for managing the flow of the Great Lakes. The IJC does this using guidelines set forth in its Plan 2014, a policy intended to balance commercial shipping with protection of lake habitats.

Albany, along with other critics, calls Plan 2014 flawed. Among the complaints is that the IJC is putting priority on protecting Montreal from flooding at the expense of other Lake Ontario communities. The IJC, however, insists the plan is working and that flooding last year and in 2017 is to be blamed on wetter-than-usual weather.

The IJC did state last summer, however, that it would be willing to review Plan 2014 for possible changes. In the Town of Wilson, Supervisor Phillips says what IJC needs to do is be more proactive with its water outflow.

"Start letting the water out. Don't wait till it meets whatever the indicator is. Start letting it out. If you see that the other lakes which are full right now, that's an indication that you got all this water coming," he said. "Start letting the water out earlier."

Cuomo, on Wednesday, appeared in Oswego County to announce $300 million of state funding for 20 Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River dredging projects as part of its lakeshore strengthening efforts. Wilson and Olcott are among the 20 sites selected but dredging near the Niagara County locales is not scheduled until June 2021.

Phillips says the Town of Wilson, in the meantime, will use its designated REDI money to install floating docks and keep the boat launch accessible.

In Newfane, Supervisor Horanburg believes Olcott Beach will remain closed in 2020. Young and other local business owners are preparing to again open their establishments and attract customers, beach or no beach.

"We definitely bring a lot of other things to our calendar to bring tourists in, and we try to keep the calendar pretty full all summer long with special events, pirates, festivals, jazz festivals, duck races, all the other things that don't focus on the beach so that even if we don't have a beach, we can still provide a great experience for tourists," she said.