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

OLCOTT - If the Lake Ontario water level continues to rise as forecast, evacuations might be needed along the lakeshore in Niagara County, officials said Thursday.

"I'm more afraid of the winds than the rains right now," Newfane Town Supervisor Timothy R. Horanburg said.  "If we get a northeast storm right now, we have major problems coming. It would be a disaster."

Officials announced a 30-day state of emergency in Niagara County's lakeshore towns of Porter, Wilson, Newfane and Somerset. Orleans County also announced a state of emergency Thursday.

Several politicians at a news conference at the Olcott Yacht Club attacked the International Joint Commission's newly adopted water level control policy, called Plan 2014, for causing the danger.

It's too late to alleviate the problem by letting more water flow out of Lake Ontario.

"It takes five to seven days to drop our level one inch. It's too late," said County Legislator David E. Godfrey, R-Wilson.

Lake Ontario levels are controlled in part by dams at the eastern end of the lake which are used to regulate the flow of water out of the lake through the St. Lawrence River.

Jonathan F. Schultz, county fire coordinator and emergency management director, said the state has provided sandbags and a sandbag filling machine.

He said 30,000 bags are on hand in Olcott, with another 30,000 to arrive Friday, along with a sandbag-filling machine. Six to eight truckloads of sand will be used to fill the bags this weekend. They'll be ready for use when needed, Schultz said.

As waves rolled over the Olcott piers, Horanburg said the lake water could enter the town sewer system and overwhelm it. Less than two weeks ago, volunteer fire companies were called to pump water out of the low-lying West Bluff area of Olcott.

"Once we lose our sewers, people are going to have to leave," Horanburg said.

"Two weeks ago, we had 10- or 11-foot waves coming in here," Horanburg said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the level of Lake Ontario is 18 inches higher than the long-term average for April, with a further rise of 11 inches forecast by mid-May.

The crest is currently estimated to arrive May 14, said Clyde L. Burmaster, vice chairman of the Niagara County Legislature.

Among those attacking the commission was County Legislator John Syracuse, R-Newfane, whose district includes half of the county's lakefront.

"This is a government-caused disaster that we're seeing here today, make no mistake about it," Syracuse said. "This didn't have to happen."

But Frank Bevacqua, spokesman for the IJC, said the water levels are only 2 inches higher than they would be if the commission hadn't implemented its Plan 2014, which allows for greater fluctuations in lake levels.

He blamed heavy spring rains in the Great Lakes region for the trouble.

Anthony McKenna, an Olcott resident and professional engineer who served on a study committee for the commission, said even though the water levels are just below the plan's trigger levels" for increased outflow to the St. Lawrence River, the commission should have taken action before now.

"They can't release now because it would flood out Montreal," McKenna said. "They should have done it sooner."

Bevacqua said there have been reports of flooding near Montreal, and a posting on the IJC website last week asserted that if enough water were let out of the lake to reduce levels at the western end, "catastrophic flooding" could result in the Montreal area.



Al Weir, who owns a house on Lake Ontario in Burt, has significant erosion to his lakefront since a storm two weeks ago. He's never seen the water level so high. The tree on left growing at an angle used to sit 3 feet above the water. Photo taken, Wednesday, April 19, 2017. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

But in the meantime, local leaders were hoping Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo would declare a disaster in the lakefront counties, allowing the release of state money for reimbursement of their expenses.

Ortt urged the local officials at the news conference to keep good records and save their receipts.

"Unless you have a good catalog of whatever damages happen in your community, there's going to be no way you get reimbursed," he warned.

New water level rules upset Lake Ontario property owners


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