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Beach disappears, bank erodes as Lake Ontario keeps rising

Bruce Williams' smashed concrete and steel staircase dangles from the edge of his backyard overlooking Lake Ontario.

His neighbors Christine Bronson and Bob Verheyn lost a patio, and now their picnic table is in a precarious spot on the edge of a bluff in Somerset.

Erosion cost Al Weir a chunk of land, perhaps 30 feet wide and 40 feet high, that once protected his beach staircase just east of Olcott.

Lake Ontario's high water level has damaged their properties and flooded other areas, prompting Niagara County on Thursday to declare a state of emergency in the lakeshore towns of Porter, Wilson, Newfane and Somerset.

"We've been here 15 years. We've never seen this kind of destruction," Bronson said.

 

A 30-chunk of land next to Al Weir's staircase washed away as well as another large section on the left. This area was covered with grass and sloped down to the water. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

The line of boulders that once marked her land in Somerset now is submerged.

"The picnic table's going to go soon," she said. "Everything is being undercut."

It's likely to get worse.

Lake Ontario's water level is 18 inches above the long-term average for this time of year, and the forecast calls for a further rise of about 11 inches by mid-May, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The water level rose 14 inches from mid-March to mid-April, the Corps said.

Some officials blame the weather.

Niagara, Orleans counties declare state of emergency over high Lake Ontario waters

"It is a time of year when storms often occur, so communities along the shore need to take every precaution," said Frank Bevacqua,  a spokesman for the International Joint Commission, a board that advises the U.S. and Canadian governments on water issues.

But many local officials and landowners point the finger at the commission's newly adopted Plan 2014 for controlling the water level in Lake Ontario that called for higher highs and lower lows.

Niagara County Legislator John Syracuse, R-Newfane, said elected officials along the lakeshore passed resolutions and sent protest letters against Plan 2014, to no avail.

"We said something like this would happen, and unfortunately we're living this now," Syracuse said. "They're harming individual people and their property, and it's a shame."

A 30-chunk of land next to Al Weir's staircase washed away, taking out the bottom section of steps. to what used to be the beach. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

The commission's view

The binational commission controls the water level in Lake Ontario by regulating flows past a dam at the eastern end of the lake, where the water flows down the St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic Ocean.

Bevacqua, the commission's spokesman, said Plan 2014 tries "to balance the needs of upstream and downstream users and minimize shoreline damages."

Clearly, damage can been seen this spring, but Bevacqua said that's not the fault of Plan 2014.

"The lake is not at a record-high level for this time of year," Bevacqua said. "It has been a very wet spring, both in terms of inflows from Lake Erie and precipitation over the Lake Ontario basin. The lake is not significantly higher than it would be if we had been following the old plan. It's perhaps two inches higher than it would have been under the old plan."

Lake Erie is 16 inches above its long-term April average, but it rose only 6 inches in the past month and is forecast to increase only 2 more inches, the Corps said.

"There is a significant number of vulnerable properties on the shore of Lake Ontario," Bevacqua said. "There's nothing new that we're seeing this year. Fluctuating water levels and coastal storms always have been a fact of life on the coastline."

Bevacqua said the water level is close to the Plan 2014 "trigger" level for increasing outflows from Lake Ontario. But he said the commission would have to consider conditions elsewhere before letting more water out. Lake St. Louis, near Montreal, rose 14.6 inches in the first half of April, and flooding was reported in the Montreal area.

The commission said letting enough water out of Lake Ontario to reduce the levels at its western end would cause "catastrophic flooding" at the eastern end.

The local view

"The IJC, with the higher highs and the lower lows, has created a lot of issues for us," said Weir, who lost the huge chunk of land behind his home during a two-day period in March. "I've been here 10 years and the lake has never been this high, and now we're getting a lot of washing away and erosion of the lake bank, losing a lot of land that we pay taxes on."

"We've had high waves here, but that's never been a problem," said Williams, the Somerset resident. "It seems to me the water level is quite a bit higher than normal, therefore the waves get more powerful."

The strip of brown water along the shore, extending out 100 feet or more in some areas this week, indicates the intense erosion.

Lake Ontario's water level has long been a contentious issue.

Three years ago, Wilson Harbor underwent dredging because the water level was too low for boats to operate safely.

Last month, the town's piers were underwater, said County Legislator David E. Godfrey, R-Wilson.

A week ago the Niagara County Sheriff's Office asked boaters to stay at least 500 feet from shore to keep from churning up more waves that could damage property.

In Olcott, there's been occasional ground-floor flooding in the buildings of the Olcott Yacht Club and Hedley Boat Co., on opposite sides of the harbor, according to Newfane Supervisor Timothy R. Horanburg.

He was touring Olcott Tuesday with Syracuse and Jonathan F. Schultz, the county's emergency management director, when they saw the west end of Ontario Street give way.

"We're trying to come up with a game plan to try to prevent some of this before it happens," Horanburg said.

The town supervisor said the hardest hit area is west of the harbor, a lower-lying location where on April 7 town fire companies pumped water out of the neighborhood. Lake water could enter the storm sewer system and test its capacity, Horanburg warned.

Schultz was planning to call the Corps and the state Office of Emergency Management to see if materials such as sandbags can be supplied.

"If we get the northeast winds, we're going to have some big issues, especially if the waters keep going up as they have been," Schultz said.

Lakeshore risk

Verheyn, the Somerset resident, said he hires a contractor every couple of years to reposition the boulders in front of his Somerset property.

"This year we didn't do it, and we paid for it," Verheyn said.

Robert Emerson, executive director of Old Fort Niagara in Youngstown, said that during a March storm, the entire north wall of the nearly 300-year-old French Castle, the oldest building at the fort, was coated with ice from the freezing spray of lake waves.

Emerson said there had been ice before near the base of the building, but it never covered the entire 2 1/2-story wall. The castle is about 15 feet from a seawall and stands about 30 feet above the surface of the water.

Emerson said that two years ago "a piece of ground about the size of a big dump truck just fell into the lake. That was after the lake levels had started to rise, and we'd never seen anything like that before."

The commission's studies and historical results as far back as the 1950s show many lake level fluctuations, Bevacqua said.

The commission expected "a small increase in coastal damages" from Plan 2014, he said.

"It's a very small part of the overall picture," Bevacqua said.

Plan 2014 is meant "to undo damage to 64,000 acres of coastal wetlands that occurred under the old plan," he added.

Erosion along the lake is not new.

Meg Thompson of Wilson said her property has a breakwall, which was right along the shore in 1970. Now, it's 30 feet away from the shore and barely visible because of the high water. Meanwhile, the bluff behind her home is being undercut by the waves.

Five years ago, she applied to the state Department of Environmental Conservation for a permit to install some boulders as a barrier.

"The state denied us. They wouldn't let us try to protect our property," Thompson said. "And then they raised the water level."

She said the DEC advised lakeshore property owners to plant trees to shore up the ground.

"The neighbors did that. Everything they planted is all gone," Thompson said.

Corps spokesman Luciano Vera said the Corps and the DEC have a joint application form for work along the lakeshore, but each agency must issue permits separately.

Verheyn recalled that around 1974, the Corps of Engineers offered money to lakefront landowners to purchase materials to shore up the shore.

Vera confirmed that $1.1 million was distributed to property owners in 1973-74, under a program requested by Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller in response to high lake levels. The program was called Operation Foresight.

Syracuse said local officials are now evaluating conditions to see if a state of emergency needs to be declared by Albany.

"Certainly the best solution to this is to lower the lake levels," Syracuse said.

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