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Lake Ontario officials forecast only 5% chance of flood-stage lake levels

There is only a 5% chance of the level of Lake Ontario rising high enough this year to cause significant flooding in Niagara County, an international board forecast Friday.

The calculations by the staff of the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board set the worst-case scenario at 248 feet above sea level, which is roughly the level that produces some flooding along the lakefront in Olcott and Wilson.

"We are looking at a peak elevation of Lake Ontario that's well below what we saw in 2017 and 2019, so that should come as good news," Anthony David, a U.S. member of the board, said in an online media briefing.

"We're sure hoping they're right," said Newfane Supervisor Timothy R. Horanburg, whose town includes Olcott. "The waves still bother us a little bit along the shoreline, but flooding? If they keep it below 248, we can live with that."

In 2017 and 2019, the lake level peaked at about 249 feet, and there was extensive flooding along the Niagara County shore of the lake. The level at Olcott at noon Friday was 247.35 feet.

David said the Lake Ontario level forecast applies even though the water levels in the other four Great Lakes are near or above all-time records. That's because a mild winter prevented the formation of much ice in the St. Lawrence River.

"The lack of river ice this year meant record outflows in January, February and March. It was a very fortunate condition for us to take advantage of," David said.

The mild winter also meant the spring snowmelt that runs into the lake and river was much less than usual, David said.

"That Ottawa River down there has already crested and is going down," Horanburg said. "I think the chances of them having to knock the flows back because of that are slimmer, and that's going to help us."

The most likely lake peak will be between 247.5 feet and 248 feet, according to the board's forecast. The calculations show a 50% chance of the lake level exceeding 247.5 feet, but only a 5% chance of the level topping 248 feet.

Niagara County Emergency Management Director Jonathan F. Schultz said he is "cautiously optimistic," but sandbags have been delivered to all communities along the lake and the lower Niagara River, just in case. And he said the berm that protects western Olcott has undergone repairs since mid-April.

David cautioned that there still could be damage from storms or unexpectedly wet weather.

"The board cannot systemically prevent flooding," he said. "The only way to reliably prevent future damage is through permanent resilience measures."

In November, the state announced eight such projects in Niagara County, with a total estimated cost of almost $32 million. Before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, construction was scheduled for 2021.

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