Significant erosion and flooding may be hitting the Lake Ontario shoreline, but the agency controlling the lake level has reduced the amount of water leaving Lake Ontario four times this week, before increasing it again Wednesday and Thursday.
The high water on the New York State shore may be high but the Montreal area is experiencing even worse conditions.
So regulating the water flow has become a balancing act, a spokesman for the International Joint Commission said.
While Lake Ontario at Olcott in Niagara County is 21 inches above normal, the water in Montreal Harbor is 47 inches above its norm for this time of year.
The agency faces the highest water levels since 1993.
Water is entering the lake from the Niagara River and from rainfall much faster than it can be emptied, commission spokesman Frank Bevacqua said. He said the more water is released from the lake, the higher the water level rises in Montreal.
"We expect that the lake will continue to rise for approximately the next four weeks, but not as rapidly as during the past month. The amount of rise will be determined by how much rain is received upstream and downstream," Bevacqua said.
Local officials want more water released from the lake.
"It doesn't seem to me that they could see the impact of a couple of days of emptying that fast," said Newfane Supervisor Timothy R. Horanburg, whose town includes Olcott Harbor on Lake Ontario.
"Our harbor is absolutely full. It wouldn't take much of a wave to push it (onto shore)," Horanburg said.
But Wednesday, things were largely calm, he added.
The National Weather Service, however, issued a lakeshore flood watch - which was later upgraded to a warning - for Friday because of predicted rain and stiff northeast winds.
The U.S.-Canadian joint agency is attempting a balancing act, faced with demands that flooding and erosion be prevented both along the south shore of the lake and in the Montreal area.
Lake St. Louis, which borders on the western edge of Montreal, is 22 inches above the seasonal norm. Its water flows into the St. Lawrence, but Lake St. Louis is fed by the Ottawa River, where spring has been just as wet as it has in the Great Lakes basin.
"As higher threshold levels on Lake Ontario are exceeded, the threshold on Lake St. Louis also rises. So, yes, Lake St. Louis is currently being held at a level above its flood elevation," Bevacqua told The Buffalo News via email.
"The objective is to remove as much water as possible from Lake Ontario while managing flooding on Lake St. Louis," Bevacqua explained. "The IJC’s board would be setting the flows in the same manner under the previous regulation plan."
Several local officials have blamed Plan 2014, the lake water level management policy implemented by the commission in January. Rep. Chris Collins has called on President Trump to fire all the U.S. members of the commission and replace them with opponents of Plan 2014.
But the agency insists the wet weather is the cause of the problems on Lake Ontario, asserting that the water levels would be within two inches of where they are now even if the policy hadn't been changed.
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.
Since April 5, the commission has increased the outflow 17 times and decreased it 13 times.
The outflow rate Thursday was 1.9 million gallons per second.
The highest outflow rate in the past month was 2.3 million gallons per second.
The lowest outflow rate in past month was 1.5 million gallons per second.
The board's management of Lake Ontario has been active, with the outflows adjusted almost daily. Since April 5, the board has left the water level unchanged on only five days. On four different days, the flow rate has been altered more than once, including three reductions on Tuesday.
"It's not how much water you're letting out. It's how much water you're letting out compared to how much is coming in," Bevacqua said.
He said that if 216,621 gallons of water left the lake every second for a week, the water level would drop only an inch. At the current outflow rate of 1.9 million gallons per second, the water level would fall 9 inches in a week - if no new water were coming in.
"The same outflow will raise Lake St. Louis by 11 inches for the entire week," Bevacqua said.
But the net current inflow into the lake from the Niagara River and rainfall is estimated at 2.9 million gallons per second, the commission spokesman said.
State of emergency
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo declared a state of emergency in the eight lakeshore counties Tuesday, after an inspection trip to Rochester. He also appealed to the IJC to allow more water to flow past the Moses-Saunders Dam at the eastern end of Lake Ontario. The lake empties into the St. Lawrence River and from there into the Atlantic Ocean.
The International St. Lawrence-Lake Ontario Board, which adjusts the outflows, increased the amount of water leaving Lake Ontario on Wednesday morning and again at midnight Thursday, after decreasing it earlier in the week, once on Monday and three times on Tuesday.
But Bevacqua said the agency did not receive Cuomo's letter asking for more outflows until 10:21 a.m. Wednesday, which was 81 minutes after it had increased the flow.
The state of emergency declared by Cuomo allows the Department of Environmental Conservation to issue emergency permits for protective measures against high Lake Ontario waters, and Cuomo also created a rapid response team, a flood information hotline and deployed 20 National Guard members to help in flood reactions.
The hotline, at (866) 244-3839, is meant to provide residents with the latest flooding forecast, help with flood mitigation measures like sandbags, or technical assistance regarding on-site repairs.
Cuomo ordered 365,000 sandbags sent to the Lake Ontario region, including 60,000 for Niagara County and 30,000 for Orleans County. A sandbag filling machine was sent to Niagara County.
"With waters on the Lake Ontario coastline rising to the highest levels in 20 years, we are remaining vigilant and will continue to do everything in our power to assist communities with flooding preparation and response measures," Cuomo said.
He said the DEC is sending a team of coastal engineers to Lake Ontario to work with property owners to address erosion, conduct site visits, meet with owners, and offer technical guidance, while reviewing all emergency permit applications Property owners can call the DEC’s Division of Water at (518) 402-8185 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
"With this state of emergency, we can now look into funding sources to help municipalities, homeowners and businesses reclaim some of the losses," said State Sen. Robert G. Ortt, R-North Tonawanda. "Along with Congressman Collins and local officials, I have railed against Plan 2014 for years and I hope the state will step up to find a long-term solution as well."
The view in Montreal
Residents of the Montreal area have seen far worse flooding than anything so far experienced by those in the Niagara County communities.
But the commission's Plan 2014 has not been criticized in the Canadian media.
The Montreal Gazette reported authorities ordered the evacuation of a small island Wednesday because of flash flooding from river waters, but only 19 of the 50 homeowners agreed to leave. Also, the residents of five riverfront homes on the mainland left their homes Wednesday. A photo showed a man carrying a woman through nearly knee-high water on Ile Mercier.
In Laval, a major Montreal suburb, there was extensive flooding April 20, and weather forecasters predict more flooding this weekend because of expected heavy rains and high water on the rivers flowing into the St. Lawrence from northern Quebec.
Five of Montreal's western boroughs are under a flooding threat, according to the city's website. The Gazette reported that four of them have sandbag dams in place. The city has set up a phone line for people to call to request sandbags.
"Sandbag dams were holding, but water levels were continuing to rise at all points," the Gazette reported Thursday.
In Laval, "Residents living along the riverfront are being advised to remove any objects that might be carried away by sudden flooding - including their boats. Meanwhile, motorists in those areas are being asked to go slow on flooded streets, as the waves created by their vehicles add to the level of water approaching homes in the area," the newspaper reported.
“There’s nothing we can do to stop those levels from rising,” city spokesman Philippe Sabourin told the Montreal newspaper. “What we can do is try and help people to protect their possessions.”
Adjusting the outflows
Frank Sciremammano Jr., a Rochester-area member of the International Lake Ontario - St. Lawrence Board, said the agency is adjusting the outflow rate so often because of the heavy flow into the St. Lawrence from the Ottawa River, as well as the inflow from the Niagara River at the western end of the lake.
"With the lake very high, the normal option would be to release a great amount of water. But downstream they're also very high, especially at the Ottawa River, which flows into the St. Lawrence," Sciremammano said.
He said Plan 2014 guaranteed that "Quebec, the downstream area, would be as protected as it was under the old plan. The plan was modified to achieve that, and that's one of the sore points."
Anthony McKenna of Olcott, a professional engineer who served five years on an IJC's public interest advisory study group, said the commission should have started tinkering with the outflow rates sooner to avoid flooding as much as possible.
"They should have been increasing and deviating flows back to March," he said.
The commission's website shows there were 13 outflow adjustments in March, eight increases and five decreases.
Bruce Williams of Somerset, whose staircase to the lake was destroyed by high water this spring, said the weather is largely to blame for the trouble. He doesn't approve of the tinkering with outflows.
"The best thing to do would be to let the lake take its natural level, rather than make a prediction from day to day without a scentific basis," said Williams, the founder of Trek Inc., a Lockport electronic implement manufacturer.
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