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Lake Ontario water levels rising again

Officials in Niagara and Orleans counties have no trouble recalling what happened in the spring of 2017, when flooding and heavy erosion along the shore of Lake Ontario triggered an eventual federal disaster declaration.

So with the lake's water level rising dramatically in the last week or so, emergency officials are keeping a close eye on conditions.

The water level in the lake has risen about 5 inches within the last 10 days, said Jonathan Schultz, director of emergency services for Niagara County.

His office has been in contact with municipalities and agencies locally and regionally, including the Army Corps of Engineers, the state Office of Emergency Management and the National Weather Service, Schultz said Monday during a news conference at Golden Hill State Park in Somerset.

“At this point, everybody’s predicting a little bit higher than last year, but we’ve been seeing some significant rains, like we had this past weekend, and other things going on with the lake,” he said. “So, of course, we’re keeping our eye on it all the time, day in and day out.”

The rising levels are due in part to the seasonal thaw, as well as with how much water is being let out of the eastern end of the lake by the International Joint Commission. That amount of water allowed to flow out of the lake has been cut back in recent weeks, like it usually is this time of year, according to Schultz.

Part of the reductions in water flowing out of the lake are also because of flood conditions in Ottawa, he said.

Local officials called Monday’s news conference, in part, to assure residents they are prepared for any potential flooding.

“What we want to do is get out ahead of rising lake waters,” said Orleans County Legislature Chairwoman Lynne M. Johnson.

Niagara County has about 10,000 sandbags ready to go that are being stored at the Newfane Department of Public Works, Schultz said.

Any needed resources can be deployed within 24 hours, he added.

The water level Monday was more than two feet lower than where conditions peaked in 2017. Current predictions call for lake levels to be about 5 or 6 inches higher than where they were last year, Schultz said.

Officials wouldn’t start deploying sandbags until the level rose about another 6 to 8 inches from their current level, he said.

Low-lying areas are the most at risk for flooding. In 2017, Olcott Harbor, Wilson Harbor and Youngstown were among the areas that were hardest hit.

County officials have blamed the International Joint Commission's regulation of water levels for what happened, while the commission has pointed to rainy weather that spring. By early 2018, the state had committed $50 million to help property owners along Lake Ontario recover from damage due to the flooding and erosion.

Authorities want residents to be proactive and alert them if they start to see any issues, Schultz said.

“If they’re starting to have concerns, let us know,” he said, “so we can start to address them early.”

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