Lake Ontario levels low this winter, construction underway to improve shoreline resiliency

Mar 4, 2021

Lake Ontario’s water levels are nearly 2' lower than they were this time last year. It has Great Lakes officials optimistic shoreline communities will avoid any major flood damage this year. As WBFO’s Nick Lippa reports, state-funded construction projects along Lake Ontario this summer aim to address long-term flooding concerns.

  

Docks at the Hedley Boat Yard, Lake Ontario, May 2019
Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO

High Lake Ontario water levels have been a costly problem the past half-decade. With record-setting years in 2017 and 2019, local businesses and shoreline property owners endured tens of thousands of dollars in property damages.

 

One way to lower levels is controlling outflow. International Lake Ontario-St.Lawrence River Board Member Tony David explains how they do it. 

 

“Most people know that the levels on the upper Great Lakes have been very high and all of that water is making its way down into Lake Ontario, and eventually exits out the St. Lawrence River," David said. "Those outflows are controlled by the Moses-Saunders Dam located between Massena and Cornwall, Ontario. So there's capacity to influence water levels. And the regulation plan, which is known as Plan 2014, prescribes how those outflows are regulated. So given that the excessive volumes of water that are coming into Lake Ontario, specifically from Lake Erie, those run over Niagara Falls and out the Niagara River into Lake Ontario."

Lake Ontario’s levels are almost two feet lower than they were this time last year. But David said regulation can only help so much. 

“We can look at opportunities to improve outflow and try and address that, but they're only making relative and small improvements," David said. "We don't have the capacity to have absolute control over lake levels in Lake Ontario, but we can make and find opportunities to make relative improvements.”

 

David said the system of water regulation is not designed to systematically eliminate flooding from Lake Ontario.

 

In the summer of 2019, New York State began the Lake Ontario Resiliency and Economic Development Initiative, also known as REDI. The commission, made up of municipalities from eight New York counties (Niagara and Orleans, Monroe, Wayne, Cayuga and Oswego, and Jefferson and St. Lawrence), will invest over $200 million for at-risk infrastructure and public safety concerns.

 

New York State Department of Transportation Commissioner Marie Therese Dominguez said there are a dozen projects completed so far.

 

“And probably more than a dozen others that are in the construction phase," Dominguez said. "We've got about 115 projects that are slated to break ground between March and November of this year alone.”

 

Dominguez said the pandemic has not slowed down any plans. That’s good news for Newfane Town Supervisor Tim Horanburg, who said high lake levels in Olcott slowed tourism down well before the pandemic started. 

 

“Most of our fishermen come out of Pennsylvania and Ohio and they weren't coming," Horanburg said. "It was a huge economic hit. And then to get hit with a COVID just really knocked us out for a loop. So we plan on coming back this year very strong.”

 

The big project about to be built in Olcott is a $14 million breakwall. Horanburg is expects construction to begin this May.

 

“That breakwall will protect our inner harbor. Right now it has no protection at all from wind and waves. The way it's designed, the highest wave we should have at the harbor after it's constructed is one foot,” he said.

 

Horanburg said they have plenty of sandbags and pumps leftover from previous years in case an emergency rises. Until construction is complete, municipalities will monitor Lake Ontario’s basin weather conditions, hoping it stays relatively dry.