Facing Large Water Supply, Lake Ontario Residents Want More Outflows This Winter

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SYRACUSE, NY (WRVO) – Lake Ontario is only 4 inches above its long-term average and forecasts predict that water levels will continue to decrease over the next month, yet some are concerned about flooding over the winter and spring. Lake Ontario is downstream from the rest of the Great Lakes, all of which are well above their long-term averages.

When Lake Ontario swelled to a record height in the summer of 2019 and caused massive flooding as a result, the international body that helps regulate it decided to release as much water as possible from the lake through the Moses-Saunders Dam and down the St. Lawrence River. That meant deviating from the regular water management plan, Plan 2014, which they did for about a year. In the process, the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board set record outflows several months in a row in an effort to avoid any flooding in 2020. And it worked.

Tony David is a U.S. member of the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board, an international body that helps regulate water levels in Lake Ontario. CREDIT TONY DAVID

But, Board member Tony David said they don’t deserve much, if any, of the credit.

“All of the deviations that were done over the winter months and leading up to the peak – it’s only maybe 7 or 8 inches of additional water that was released off of Lake Ontario,” David said. “The bulk of that credit goes to the favorable weather that we have and that should be a signal to people that the weather is in control of our fates here. There’s just such a small band of influence that water regulation can have.”

Still, for those who live along the shoreline every inch matters, especially when Lake Erie is two feet above its long-term average. That’s why many advocacy groups that lobby on behalf of Lake Ontario residents are calling for the board to use the same strategy this winter as they did last year.

“In January when the shipping season is over, do exactly what you did last winter – physically let out as much water as you can because you don’t know what’s going to happen next spring,” said Bernie Gigas, a Lake Ontario shoreline resident and licensed engineer with a specialty in fluid dynamics.

Additionally, some groups are calling for increased outflows now and an early end to the shipping season on the St. Lawrence Seaway to accomplish that. Gigas disagrees, as did the Board at a recent meeting. So, there won’t be any deviations from Plan 2014 for the foreseeable future. Lake Ontario is below where it was at this time last year and David said even if they started deviating now, there’s no guarantee it would make a difference come spring.

“Based on the current conditions and the fact that Lake Ontario is continuing to decline, we don’t see the need at present to look at requesting a deviation authority,” David said. “We can revisit the issue, but right now Plan 2014 is doing all of the things that you would expect it to do. It’s calculating outflows that are higher than the inflows, we’re holding strong right now at the long-term average, and really we’re limited by the design capacity of the system. So, the plan is doing as much as you would expect it to do and we will be looking at what additional opportunities are available over the winter months.”