WATERTOWN — Extraordinarily dry weather and low water levels on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River have prompted officials to cut outflows at the Moses-Saunders Power Dam in Massena and to host two open forums to discuss the issue with the public.
According to the International Joint Commission, the U.S.-Canadian body that regulates the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River, water levels this year are well below their historical average.
In Lake Ontario, levels are down 1.2 feet from their average as of June 6. At Lake St. Lawrence, just before the power dam, water levels dropped below their same-day historic lows twice in May, and now sit about a foot below their historic average.
In a news release sent June 3, the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board, a subsidiarity of the IJC, announced it will host two binational virtual public meetings, on June 15 and 17, to present information on the causes of the low water levels and to answer questions.
“We have been hearing from concerned property owners, business owners and recreational users regarding the current below-average water levels throughout the system,” the release stated. “The board plans to hold these meetings to provide information on current and forecast conditions for the summer, and to hear specific concerns.”
The region is in a drought, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, with the last 12 months being the driest on record for Lake Ontario since 1966. According to John M. Peach, executive director of Save the River and the Upper St. Lawrence Riverkeeper, those drought conditions are entirely to blame for the low water levels being seen today.
“Precipitation drives lake levels, and 80 percent of the water in the river is from the Great Lakes,” he said.
Mr. Peach said he’s seen low water like this before, and high water too, but he’s never seen water and precipitation levels drop so quickly. He said, in the years between 2013 and 2019, the Great Lakes basin saw record-high levels of precipitation, leading to record-high water levels.
But now, in 2020 and 2021, the basin has hit historic lows for annual precipitation.
“It’s amazing that there’s been that much variability,” Mr. Peach said.
In an attempt to raise the water level even slightly, the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board on Friday announced they will be scaling back outflows at the Moses-Saunders Power Dam after water levels hit a specific threshold called “Criterion H14.”
On May 29, outflows at the dam were set 3,530 cubic feet per second lower than normal for this time of year, and on June 5, outflows were decreased again to 296,100 cubic feet per second, 7,060 lower than normal.
Mr. Peach said that move could help bring the water back up slightly, but controlling outflows can only do so much. Over the winter months in late 2020 and early 2021, the IJC anticipated another year of high water, and let about three inches of water leave the system, he said. Once officials saw water levels were instead lower than average, they cut outflows and brought water levels up by three inches.
“That’s really all they can do, they can only control the water levels so much, and three inches in their maximum amount of control,” Mr. Peach said.
The Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board will host their two public forums via Zoom on June 15 and 17 from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Interested parties should sign up beforehand at the links provided at wdt.me/RiverBoard.
Both meetings will be held in French and English with simultaneous translation, and recordings will be posted on the board’s website afterwards.