OGDENSBURG — With Lake Ontario water levels still about two feet above normal, officials who manage outflows from the lake will maintain greater leniency to increase outflows when opportunities arise, which may help lower the water levels.
High lake and St. Lawrence River water levels resulted in flooded homes, submerged docks and inundated and eroded shorelines in waterfront communities this year. Some fear the waters will wreak similar havoc next year as levels remain above normal, and predictions from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers indicate they will most likely remain above normal for months to come.
In an effort to help lower water levels as much as possible, the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board, which regulates outflows from the lake through the Robert Moses-Robert H. Saunders Power Dam, received approval from the International Joint Commission, which oversees the board, to keep deviating from outflow regulations in Plan 2014 until June 2020, said Tony David, an American member of the board, on Thursday in front of about 20 local officials at the Dobisky Visitors’ Center. The leeway has been in effect since last May.
The approval allows the board to “get as much water off of Lake Ontario as possible” in the next seven months because the board can, when possible, raise outflows at times that would deviate from the limits of Plan 2014, Mr. David said. The board, however, must ensure allowing more water through the dam would not harm safe shipping conditions, communities on Lake St. Lawrence and their water intakes, downstream communities like Montreal and the ability to form a stable ice cover in the winter.
“Everything is on the table,” Mr. David said, but, “we have to manage our expectations. In 2019, the best we could have hoped for was an additional five or six centimeters off Lake Ontario. It’s not a foot, it’s not a foot and a half, you know, but it’s something.”
The level of Lake Ontario, which typically correlates with the upper St. Lawrence River, was 246.26 feet Tuesday, one foot and eight inches above the historic average for that time, which is 244.59 feet.
The announcement from the river board follows a forecast from the Army Corps of Engineers this month that predicts Lake Ontario and the other Great Lakes will most likely remain above its historic average levels for the next six months.
Depending on the amount of water flowing from Lake Erie and precipitation, Lake Ontario levels could range from a little less than a foot to about two-and-a-half feet above average by the end of the year, according to a chart from the Army Corps. Lake levels could range from below average by about half a foot to more than two-and-a-half feet above normal by mid-spring. The Army Corps expects the other Great Lakes to remain above their average levels for the year.
Lauren M. Schifferle, a civil engineer with the Corps’ Buffalo District, said Wednesday that while Lake Ontario could return to normal levels, the basin would have to experience drought conditions. Ms. Schifferle said Lake Ontario has a greater chance of experiencing high water levels because Lake Erie, the water from which flows into Lake Ontario, and other lakes will be high.
“Certainly our chances of having a repeat of (high waters) next year are higher,” said Robert J. Campany, another American river board member, on Thursday.
With communities still recovering from flooding and waiting to see what the future brings, state Assemblyman Mark C. Walczyk, R-Watertown, invited various local stakeholders to learn about water level management from members of the river board and Army Corps at the forum Thursday at the Dobisky Center.
Mr. Walczyk asked about the possibility of stopping commercial shipping to release more from the dam, but Mr. David said that could cause an economic loss that would ripple through the U.S. economy. He, Mr. Walczyk and John M. Peach, executive director of Save the River, who has called for an early end to shipping, disputed the extent of the economic effects.
When Mr. Walczyk asked for recommendations about how to plan infrastructure projects when facing the possibility of future flooding, Mr. David said the Federal Emergency Management Agency could help, adding that they have been raising their base flood elevations for coastal areas in the wake of recent inundation.
Mr. Campany said communities should consider flood plain information for local zoning regulations and code enforcement for new structures and possibly relocating existing structures.
“I think local code enforcement can play a huge role,” he said.