ELLISBURG — I’m from Ellisburg in Jefferson County, and I’ve been a recreational boater on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River for many decades. My family and friends and I typically spend thousands of dollars annually on shoreline businesses that rely on boaters and stable water levels in the lake and river for their income.
Unfortunately, with extremely high water in 2017 and 2019 and now extremely low water in 2021, our spending patterns and those of other boaters have dramatically changed, collectively causing severe financial repercussions to shoreline businesses. Since the wildly fluctuating water levels of the lake for the past few years, overseen by the International Joint Commission, I’ve developed a hypothesis for the causes. I hope readers will consider my thoughts as we are now in the middle of a long low-water summer season.
I’m now retired from my job as a power delivery supervisor for National Grid. I was employed for 28 of my 35 years in the operations and maintenance of 16 hydroelectric generation stations on the Black, Beaver and Indian rivers in Northern New York. These hydro stations each had dams, reservoirs, inflows, outflows, high and low water, and closely monitored flow regulations.
However, we were not dealing with shipping concerns and large-scale evaporation issues like those on Lake Ontario. These small-scale water impoundments and power generating facilities operated much like the extensive hydroelectric facilities on the St. Lawrence River.
The fluctuating water levels of the lake and river result from the IJC attempting to perform the impossible and alternately failing to satisfy the demands of the public, recreation and corporate interests for power generation. And the IJC tries to do this during extreme weather conditions beyond which it has no control.
As a result, the public is confused over competing explanations for the water level highs and lows. Understanding water flow regulation for power generation is confusing for most people. This column is an attempt to simplify and clarify.
During the high water years of 2017 and 2019, and so soon after implementing its Plan 2014, the IJC was criticized for not lowering the water levels of Lake Ontario. I support the IJC position that nothing could have prevented the high water in those years because of severe flood conditions from rain and snow.
Unfortunately, instead of helping the IJC, the politicians blamed the recently enacted Plan 2014 and demanded changes. I believe the low-water extremes we are experiencing this year are from continued pressure from the same politicians to release more water than was called for in Plan 2014.
Their constituents pressured politicians to press the IJC to alter the original Plan 2014 and adjust the lake’s water level. I have put together some supporting facts that are either news releases or public records to support my beliefs.
n Dec. 1, 2020 — The International Joint Commission’s Lake Ontario/St. Lawrence River Board was reduced from 12 members to six: three from the United States and three from Canada.
n Dec. 11 — IJC approves the Lake Ontario/St. Lawrence Board’s request to deviate from Plan 2014 and allow increased outflows. Lake levels are just above the long-term seasonal average, well below levels that would give the board authority to vary from Plan 2014 under condition “J.”
n Feb. 1 — Lake Ontario drops below long-term average.
n Feb. 4 — Outflow at 289,000 cubic feet per second (cfs).
n Feb. 15 — Lake Ontario at 3 inches below the long-term average.
n Feb. 18 — Outflow at 261,300 cfs.
News release: High water remains a possibility.
n March 1 — Lake Ontario is 6 inches below the long-term average.
News release: Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River Board “2021 won’t be a repeat of 2017 and 2019.” Board continues deviation of Plan 2014. “In case of wet weather.” The Lake Ontario water level is at 22 inches below 2020’s level, a flood-free year. The board retains the authority to deviate from Plan 2014. “Plan deviations have a small contribution to a reduction in flood risk.” Nothing said about low-water risk.
n March 4 — Outflow at 287,500 cfs.
n March 11 — Outflow at 285,300 cfs.
n March 18 — Outflow at 282,500 cfs.
n March 31 — Lake Ontario at 9 inches below long term average.
News release: April 1 — Regional outlook for April to June is enhanced chance of below average for Erie and Ontario basins.
n April 7 — Outflow at 281,800 cfs.
n April 14, 2021 — Lake Ontario is at 12 inches below the long-term average.
News release: IJC Lake Ontario St. Lawrence River Board River Board will lower outflows to 262,000 for the rest of April.
n April 21 — Outflow at 259,600 cfs.
n May 1 — Lake Ontario at 12 inches below long-term average.
n May 6 — Outflow at 279,700 cfs.
No news release: The IJC Lake Ontario St. Lawrence River Board resumes high outflows.
n May 12 — Outflow at 285,000 cfs.
n May 19 — Outflow at 285,700 cfs.
n May 27 — Outflow at 282,800 cfs.
n June 1 — Lake Ontario 12 inches below long-term average.
n June 1 — Outflow at 276,800 cfs.
n June 7 — Lake Ontario at 15 inches below long-term average.
News release: IJC Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River Board to reduce outflow to provide relief for municipal water, navigation and power purposes upstream and downstream. At this point, water levels downstream are getting to be a problem.
n June 7 — Outflow at 269,097 cfs.
Evaporation would be included in outflow amounts, although the part would be difficult to calculate.
Inflows for this same period for Lake Erie range from 245,000 to 255,000 cfs. Other inflows would be the combined total of various tributaries around the lake such as Genesee, Black, Oswego, Salmon, Rideau, Trent, Rivers, etc.
The last straw: June 9 — The Watertown Daily Times quotes John M. Peach, executive director of Save the River. He agrees with the IJC that drought conditions are entirely to blame for Lake Ontario’s low water levels. He does not mention the high outflows and the disregard for Plan 2014 since February. This indicates that he is either uninformed, unaware or influenced by political pressure, resulting in excessive water releases that far exceed reasonable outflows of Lake Ontario and low-water levels.
You can make your conclusions, but the facts are in front of you.
The level of Lake Ontario is at low late-fall levels and will recede further. The damage is done, and the lake will not recover this year. Marinas, businesses and boat owners are going to lose millions because of this.
This year is predicted to be hotter and dryer than average. When high temperatures occur and extreme evaporation adds to the depletion, outflows will have to be reduced. Then the shipping interests downstream will be crying for water that has already been released.
I will not listen to lame excuses. We have a crisis that members of the IJC Lake Ontario/St. Lawrence Board created at the direction of several politicians. They all should be replaced and held accountable for their actions.
The low-level water data IJC uses for long-term average low water should be from 1958 until now. The IJC uses those early years to confuse the public.
Those early years before the St. Lawrence Seaway are irrelevant. The three reasons the seaway was built were for shipping, hydroelectric generation and to stop wild lake-level fluctuations prevalent in those early years. Although the IJC claims it has no control over inflows from Lake Erie, it can control it to a certain extent, especially when Lake Erie is 1 foot above the long-term average.
High water has been devastating for many around Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, but low water can be equally devastating to others. I would hope that the IJC would be as concerned about low levels in the future as it is about the highs and return to science-based decisions about lake levels.