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Lake Ontario water levels are way down, but not low enough for comfort

It's been a quiet spring along the shores of Lake Ontario, where the water level is nearly 2 feet lower than it was at this time last year, when flooding and erosion were the main issues.

But some residents are pointing out that the waters remain higher than long-term averages, and in some instances are already encroaching on repairs they made last year, at major expense.

Olcott Beach near Krull Park in Olcott, which was closed all last summer because it was underwater, is open again.

However, Newfane Supervisor Timothy R. Horanburg said there isn't as much sunbathing space as there was the last time the beach was usable, in 2016.

"It's much less than normal," Horanburg said, "unless they're considering this the new normal."

As of Friday, the Army Corps of Engineers said lake waters stood 22 inches lower than a year ago and are trending downward. The Corps forecasts a drop of four inches in the next month.

"Lake Ontario has likely reached its seasonal peak this year, and while further rain events may cause lake levels to temporarily stabilize or rise slightly, water levels are expected to generally continue to fall over the summer months," the International Lake Ontario - St. Lawrence River Board announced Monday.

However, the water remains 9 inches higher than the long-term average level for the second week of June.

Residents react

"I'm pretty protected," said Ben Faery, a lakefront property owner in Wilson, who after last year's floods and erosion plunked down more than $60,000 for a contractor to

build a seawall out of 1,000 tons of stone.

"We're all good within this range," Faery said. But he said if the waters were to rise a foot, the trouble likely would be back.

"I should be in good shape unless it gets that high again," said Al Weir of Olcott, who last year lost as much as 30 feet of shore in three weeks.

Some say there are signs of coming trouble right now.

"We had rocks put in last September," said Christine Bronson of Somerset. The shore was dry enough then for the contractor to install 330 tons of stone. But now the lowest two levels of stone on her 15-foot-tall wall are under pressure.

"Now they're all under at least 18 inches of water and they have seaweed on them," Bronson said.

Niagara County Legislator David E. Godfrey, who lives on the Wilson waterfront, said the erosion hasn't stopped.

"I've lost a little bit of land," Godfrey said. "A tree that fell off the bank slid down to the bottom and formed a little peninsula. It's gone now."

He said the pier at the end of Route 425 in Wilson is frequently underwater.

"When it's washing over the Town Line Pier, it's high," Godfrey said. "When you look at the lake and see that brown plume, you know that's mud and the water is undermining the shore. Is it wave action? No, but it's still erosion."

"It's a lot better than last year, but it doesn't take much of a northeast wind to make the East Federal Pier (at Olcott) unusable," said Horanburg, who lives on the Olcott harborfront.  "It's still not low, by any means."

Actively managing the lake

The control board, which controls the eastward flow of water out of the lake past the dams at Massena and down the St. Lawrence, has allowed near-record outflows this year.

In the last 12 months, the amount of water leaving the lake was the second most since statistics began in 1900, according to a board spokeswoman. The equivalent of 50 feet of water has flowed out of the lake since June 2017.

The board has been active in managing the flow, changing the rate 69 times since Jan. 1, sometimes more than once a day.

Last week, the board was allowing more than 2.48 million gallons of water to leave the lake every second, the highest rate of the year. The outflow was cut back slightly Saturday, to 2.45 million gallons per second.

"Weather and hydrologic conditions play a more predominant role than water regulation in influencing water levels, and extreme conditions may occur at any time in any given year," the board's statement said.

"During extreme rainfall events, water levels can rise quickly throughout the Lake Ontario - St. Lawrence River system and may be amplified by wind forces. The board can do little to prevent this occurrence through outflow regulation, so it urges communities to stay in contact with their local government officials and emergency managers and make arrangements to identify an emergency action plan to protect their property should these conditions occur."

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