SANDY CREEK – Tom Hart has been watching Sandy Pond for a long time. The retired Skidmore College Environmental Science professor seems to have developed a passion for it, almost an obsession with it. He’s been studying it since 1984.
The 2017 and 2019 rising waters of Lake Ontario ravaged the narrow strip of sandy beach and dunes that define Sandy Pond and separate it from the lake to its west. What was once 200 feet wide in places is now 30. Tom Hart and the town of Sandy Creek aren’t waiting for it to get worse.
Wednesday evening, Feb. 12, Hart came into Sandy Creek from his home in Lake Placid to address the town board and those in attendance on the history and status of a project they’ve been involved in for years to save, restore, and protect Sandy Pond from further damage. Earlier that morning, Gov. Andrew Cuomo stood on its shore to reaffirm the state’s $300 million commitment to the Resiliency Economic Development Initiative (REDI) that will fund 133 projects along the shoreline of Lake Ontario, $15 million of which will fund regional dredging at 20 locations. One of those locations is Sandy Pond.
A $600,000 REDI award for the North Sandy Pond Resiliency Project will be used to strengthen the barrier bar dividing Sandy Pond and Lake Ontario. Re-use of the dredging material, which in the case of Sandy Pond is pure sand, will increase the barrier and reinforce it as a buffer against the higher level of the lake.
Cuomo referred to the lake’s high levels as the “new normal. It is happening, it is happening now, it’s happening today right here,” he said at Sandy Pond. “Let’s adjust to this reality.”
Tom Hart and the town of Sandy Creek have been adjusting for years.
“The planning process has really worked in this community,” Hart said. “We started doing plans in 1988, and that’s when the initiative went forward to actually create Sandy Island State Park. It was private land. And based on those plans people got together and said, ‘Let’s buy that.’ The Nature Conservancy bought it, transferred it to the county, and the county transferred it to the state. Change can happen. Takes years, but change can happen.”
Change seems to be a constant when you’re talking about a huge lake, a relatively much smaller pond, and a narrow sand bar separating the two.
“The purpose in doing this project of restoration was to try to preserve the barrier in a way that wouldn’t result in exposure to North Pond and all the structures on North Pond. I remind people, in 1974, the inlet, when it formed again to the north, was 1,000 feet wide for several years. That’s what would happen here too. You’d have a 1,000-foot-wide inlet opening in front of Green Point. That’s what we’re trying to stop,” Hart said.
“In the ‘70s there was a channel 150 feet wide,” he noted. “It started to get plugged with sand. And that channel had been there for a long time. Channels age and sand chokes them. They become hydrologically inefficient, so, another channel can form. And if that channel formed, in this case, 1,200 feet down the beach, what happens is all the sand in-between dissolves and gets redistributed. So, basically, if that happened, we’d have 1,200 feet of open channel, open to the lake, and all that bar would move to one side or the other. An original map from 1895 shows you there were 33 inlets out here at one point in different locations, one at a time. Some of them would form and then jump, and the old one would close, and then that old one fills up with sand.”
New inlets form, Hart said, “because the old ones end up having sand placed all around them, and water can’t get through. So, water wants to go through somewhere, and it goes to the weakest point. And the weakest point many times becomes a narrow way into the barrier beach. And the waves come, and a big storm comes and breaches that barrier and starts a small flow, but because there’s no sand on either side of it, in the pond or in the lake, then that becomes the dominant channel. And it takes three or four years for that to happen.”
In essence, the changes we see over the years are the result of a constant power struggle between the power of the lake and the power of the pond.
“If the lake goes up an inch,” said Hart, “the pond is about 2,200 acres, so imagine an inch rise in the pond, the lake wants that water to go up in the pond, it all has to go through that little inlet, so the force of the water going through there is very strong. The only time that the pond can compete with that is in spring runoff. In spring runoff, the flow from the six tributaries leading to the pond could be very large. And in fact, at those times, when ice is on the shore, ice can make a dam, and the pond level will go up four feet over night, and then it’ll try to burst out. And it could burst out through a new channel or the existing channel.”
Saving, restoring, and protecting Sandy Pond though isn’t only about inlets and the barrier beach. There are the dunes.
“These are the highest dunes in the northeast, including the Atlantic Ocean,” said Hart. “Nobody knows. Now, this lake level, it’s a shame to see it. You go out and see these dunes. There’s no rock in them anywhere. It’s all pure sand.
“We had dunes that were high as the ceiling and then they became flat,” Hart recounted. “In fact, the barrier was two feet under water. The system is always in flux. Where the inlet is now, that shore used to be 1,200 feet out in the lake in 1890. And if you’re there now, you’ll actually see that there’s steel sheetpile right at the edge of the shore, and people say, ‘Oh, somebody tried to protect that shore from going back.’ Well, no. That’s from the 1970s. That used to be someone’s backyard. So, the whole thing rolls back. It’s called barrier migration.”
Hart makes no prediction for the future of the barrier or whether it can withstand continual rising lake levels.
“We don’t know,” he said. “Honestly, we don’t know.”
But what they do know, thanks to Hart, is how much sand there actually is in the barrier.
“In September,” Hart said, “the town had issued an RFP (a request for bids) to do a survey of the beach for which we had no response. So, I went and surveyed the beach. What that means is that you take a series of measurements using a GPS and a laser, so that you know what the beach elevation was and what the dune elevation was at that time. That becomes your baseline.”
Knowing how much sand is there now and being able to closely estimate how much sand was there years ago, based on previous measurements and aerial photographs, Hart told of an interesting mathematical relationship between the sand that’s missing off the lake side of the barrier and the sand that’s been deposited in shoals within the pond.
A shoal is a submerged sandbank, the sand having been deposited along or behind an inlet in this case. Sandy Pond presently has four major inlets. The shoal behind one of them is “800,000 cubic yards,” Hart said. “That’s 80,000 dump trucks. So, it’s huge. And then those other inlets, took sand to plug them up too, so there’s about 1.2 million cubic yards of sand that has moved in the process of inlet formation and shoal formation. That’s about 30 feet wide by three feet high by four miles long, which is the amount of sand that’s missing from the front (the lake side of the barrier). So, it’s kind of a nice story. But since that shoal is there, we’re able to harvest the sand from the shoal and put it back out on the front. So, what we’re doing is putting the beach back to where it was in 2011. We don’t know if it’s going to stay there. But, with that amount of sand there, even if it overwashes and the dunes get washed down, the beach is going to be higher and has an opportunity to re-form when lower water does come. There will be a day when lower water comes. In the 1930s, we had high water, in the 1950s we had high water, and in the 1970s we had high water. And that was all based on the cycle of nature, I think. People look at 1956 as the year when the Seaway went in and we started to control lake level. We actually started to control lake level in 1906. There was a dam that was placed there by the Canadians at the gut in the St. Lawrence river. 1952, they were required to take it out. It’s one of the case studies in international law because the Canadians signed a treaty with the United States that said if there’s property damage, we will pay for it and remove the dam. Well, there was property damage in the 1950s. We had high water. Not as high as this that we’re experiencing now, but high enough to cause a lot of damage. The Canadian government paid for the damage and removed the dam. In 1956, we put in another dam. We actually gained more control over what the lake does, because they also dredged the river much deeper.”
A lot of blame for the lake’s high water levels over the past few years has been cast on the IJC, the International Joint Commission tasked with regulating those levels according to new regulations established in 2014. Hart’s not so sure casting blame is all that simple.
“I’m not really quite so sure about what the new regulating environment caused or didn’t cause,” he said. “I know that in 2017, when they just started to institute it in January, the high water was already on the way. This was predicted. The climate change predictions, whether or not you believe in global climate change, the local climate change predictions based on the change in the weather patterns called for this. They still call for it. Much more rain in the Great Lakes basin. The new regulations may have had nothing to do with it. I don’t think we have a good understanding of what it takes to manage water releases, even though we’ve been doing it for years. Montreal was flooded severely in 2017 and 2019. Could they have released more, and would it have mattered? I haven’t studied that myself a lot, but I don’t think our capacity to manage the system is as much as people think it is. I think the governor’s onto something to say, ‘do what you can.’ People talk about the new plan making the problem, but I think it’s just how we regulate it, and that the new plan didn’t change that much ‘cause they’ve been operating in the new plan parameters for quite some time. They really need to release as much water as they can. That has to be the way. You have to strike a balance, and if they can release more, they should.”
And people also blame shipping. Hart totally discounts that claim.
“People talk about shipping and the impacts of shipping,” he said. “The impacts on this system by high water are so much more than what the shipping concerns are.”
Whatever the cause, Sandy Creek is moving ahead to save Sandy Pond, Hart wanted them to know and to be proud of what they’ve achieved.
“The town of Sandy Creek is leading the way on Lake Ontario with this sort of initiative,” he said to the town board and those there to hear him speak. “You guys are making history here. Nobody else on the lake has done this. We didn’t think this was even possible when we started to dream about this at the start of the 2017 project, or even from the start when I started working here with you in 1985. That’s why I’m here still because my heart’s in this work. And I’m so happy to see that this is happening, and you really do have something to be proud of this community. You’re leading the way for the state. That’s why the governor was here today.”