HENDERSON — On Tuesday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo took a boat out from the Wescott State Park boat launch to see how high Lake Ontario had risen along the shoreline of Sackets Harbor.
“We’re looking at a possible flooding situation,” Gov. Cuomo said at the press conference following his jaunt on the lake. “The question is what happens toward the end of this week.”
More rain, wind or waves could push the high water levels into flooding and Gov. Cuomo said the state is trying to prepare.
“The first step for us is to do everything possible to prepare for a possible emergency,” Gov. Cuomo said.
For local and state officials, the challenge is to avoid a repeat of 2017 when lake and river levels remained high throughout the summer. This created problems for property owners in St. Lawrence and Jefferson counties as well as elsewhere along the lake.
Water levels are now approaching those of 2017, although are still below them — on Tuesday, Lake Ontario measured 247.81 feet in Oswego and on May 7, 2017, it measured 248.46 feet. Lake Ontario’s daily level peaked at approximately 249 feet in late May 2017, the highest recorded level on the lake since records began in 1918.
The state has tried to get ahead of the issue, sending 100,000 sandbags and two sandbaggers to Jefferson County. County Legislative Chair Scott A. Gray, who went out on the lake with Gov. Cuomo, said the state could also get AquaDams — water-filled temporary barriers — by Wednesday or even later on Tuesday.
“We’re trying to be proactive this time,” Mr. Gray said. “Sackets is an issue, the river is an issue.”
Sackets Harbor Mayor Molly C. Reilly said there were about 50 low-lying properties on the waterfront in the village that would be at risk of flooding, along with the village docks and the seawall for the village’s water intake. The village has been looking to fix the seawall for about four years, which Ms. Reilly said is at risk of collapse, impacting the drinking water of 5,000 residents.
Gov. Cuomo made a point of going beyond emergency responses and calling for more permanent solutions to high water levels and infrastructure challenges — like docks and seawalls.
“We have to recognize as a state, as a country, that weather patterns have changed,” he said. “(The infrastructure) was built for a different time, for a different reality — let’s build for a new reality.”
Gov. Cuomo highlighted the state investment in infrastructure.
“This state is spending more money on infrastructure than any other state in the United States of America, over $150 billion dollars,” he said. “Part of that is specifically for shoreline protection. But the state can’t do it alone — the federal government has been promising an infrastructure program forever ... we need that desperately. Because you’re talking about approximately 400 miles of shoreline for New York.”
Mr. Gray said the county is also looking to collaborate on infrastructure projects for shoreline towns and villages.
“You heard the governor say breakwalls are going to be important,” he said. “Whatever it takes collaboratively to get it down, between the state, the county and the towns, we’re certainly there to move forward with it and rebuild this the right way.”
Gov. Cuomo also took the opportunity to criticize the International Joint Commission, which he said is responsible for the current situation.
“By definition, when you have flooding, they have failed to manage the water flow, and then they get us into this position where it’s a Hobson’s Choice: ‘well, we have flooding in Canada, we have flooding in Montreal, we can’t reduce outflow,’” Gov. Cuomo said. “You should have never gotten us to this position in the first place.”
Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River levels are regulated through releases of water at the Robert Moses-Robert H. Saunders Power Dam in Massena and Cornwall, Ontario. The IJC oversees regulation of the Great Lakes as well as the St. Lawrence River. Its Plan 2014, adopted in late 2016, is the basic regulation plan governing Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River and is implemented by the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board.
Gov. Cuomo, however, thinks that the plan and the IJC are insufficient to manage the new, more regular flooding that he attributes to more extreme weather events.
“We’ve consulted with everyone,” Gov. Cuomo said. “That’s a lot of water, there’s no place for us to put it, it really is in the control of the IJC. They have to release more water sooner to anticipate the flooding that’s going to happen later on.”
The IJC is a frequent target for Gov. Cuomo on this issue.
“The IJC doesn’t even have a New York voice,” he said. “It’s frustrating, it’s infuriating, it’s irresponsible.”
Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos, who accompanied the governor, agreed.
“We need the IJC to adopt an extraordinarily long-term view of the science of water management for the Great Lakes,” he said. “Until that happens, we’ll be in a situation where we’ll be playing catch-up.”
As the governor departed for his next meeting, he shook hands with the local officials who had stood behind him during the press conference.
“Hope for no wind, no rain, calm seas, and a lot of evaporation,” he told them.