By Terry Duffy
As spring begins to emerge, those with an interest in the area's waterways - be they lake or riverfront property owners, boaters, sportsmen or recreational users - are once again paying attention to those water levels.
Most remember last year's disaster - one that saw record high water levels on Lake Ontario and the lower Niagara River throughout the spring and into mid-summer. Problems began to develop in 2016 and became exacerbated in 2017 - the result of snow melt, months of extremely heavy precipitation, and what many view as questionable practices with regard to Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence river system water level controls by the International Joint Commission.
The Porter Waterfront Property Owners, a group of local residents impacted by record high water levels, primarily on Lake Ontario, responded with meetings held at various points over the past year toward working on solutions. Their focus was on shoreline damage issues, primarily affecting private properties as well as engaging with government officials to address the high water problems.
It very much remains a work in progress.
New York state responded initially with commitments of millions in funding to assist the affected homeowners on the lake, stretching from Youngstown to the St. Lawrence Seaway, along with boat speed and wake restrictions in place throughout the area. So, too, came offers of federal assistance, primarily through channels linked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The results so far have been mixed.
Over past months, those water levels have, indeed, dropped. Shorelines have reappeared, but also evident are the results of last year's high water. While some areas, such as the state park's boat launches at Fort Niagara State Park, are showing new reinforcements added over past months to address high water problems, signs of shoreline erosion, oftentimes severe, are found everywhere along the lakeshore, some far worse than others.
And a host of federal government funding assistance remains still not finalized - much to dismay of municipalities, private property owners and business interests.
Village of Lewiston Trustee Victor Eydt said he continues to work with state agencies, FEMA as well as the village's insurance carrier to address more than a half-million in flooding damage that took all of the Village of Lewiston public docks out of service last year.
"Seems I've been meeting with them on almost a weekly basis.
It's been slow," said Eydt as he noted the lengthy process the village has faced with the groups in determining damages, and what will be paid out.
In the meantime, he said the village is striving to have at least some of its docks on the north end open and back into service for public use this year.
"Terry (Brolinski, village Department of Public Works superintendent) is working to have the north areas open," Eydt said.
He explained the village's aluminum docks would be re-installed in time for this boating season. Eydt said all the wooden docks on the south end will be removed, with reinforcement work still to be done on damaged areas down on the south end near Water Street Landing.
Meanwhile, the Porter Waterfront Property Owners will hold a general meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 18, at the Ransomville Firehall to again shed light on this issue. A number of local officials are expected to attend, including Porter Supervisor Duffy Johnston; 1st District Niagara County Legislator Clyde Burmaster, State Assembly members Angelo Morinello and Mike Norris, 10th District Legislator David Godfrey and Orleans County Legislature Chairwoman Lynne Johnson.
Issues expected to be discussed will again include addressing the still-unresolved individual property damage/loss issues and reimbursement by state and government agencies, plus status updates on the Lake Ontario water levels situation. Area residents are invited to attend.
The Army Corps of Engineers reported last week that Lake Ontario stands at 2 inches lower than March 2017 levels - the results, primarily, of the aforementioned continued record outflows by the IJC out of the lake and into the St. Lawrence River system. But the Army Corps also cautioned that water levels throughout the Great Lakes, including Lake Ontario, are likely to remain high, if not increase well into this spring.
"Water levels for all of the Great Lakes continue to be above their long-term average for March and all of the lakes are above last year's March levels, except Lake Ontario, which is 2 inches below. Lakes Michigan-Huron, St. Clair, Erie and Ontario have exceeded last month's averages by 2, 10, 11 and 3 inches, respectively, while Lake Superior has averaged the same water level as it did this time last month," the Army Corps stated in its weekly Great Lakes Water Level Update. "Over the next month, Lake Superior is expected to decline by 2 inches, lakes Erie and St. Clair are forecasted to rise by 2 inches, Lake Ontario is expected to rise by 4 inches, and Lake Michigan-Huron is forecasted to remain constant."
It's an issue the IJC continues to address.
Frank Bevacqua, IJC information officer, said the record high outflows out of the lake into the St. Lawrence River system have been in place throughout most of the winter will continue for the foreseeable future.
"The average Lake Ontario outflow during the month of February was the highest in recorded history," he said. "Historical records start in 1900 and include outflows that occurred both prior to and since the beginning of regulation in 1960. A stable ice cover in the St. Lawrence River allowed Plan 2014 to increase outflow under the ice, and as a result, Lake Ontario levels have fallen below those recorded at this time in 2017.
"Plan 2014 continues to prescribe near-record outflows in response to above-average levels of both Lake Ontario and the upper Great Lakes. Following temporary flow reductions during the extreme cold weather at the start of the year that saw ice form quickly on the St. Lawrence River, outflows were quickly increased thereafter, to the maximum possible without causing flooding on Lake St. Louis near Montreal."
The IJC report continued, "Basin conditions allowed Plan 2014 to prescribe record high outflows in February, even while Lake Ontario remained below Criterion H14 'trigger' levels. In instances when Lake Ontario reaches its high water trigger level, Criterion H14 gives the board the authority to deviate from Plan 2014 in order to provide all possible relief to riparian property and businesses upstream and downstream. However, the use of this authority must still consider the effects of outflows on all interests, including the risk of flooding on Lake Ontario, the risk of flooding downstream and the risk of ice jams in the St. Lawrence River."
Like the Army Corps, Bevacqua said water levels on the upper Great Lakes, Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River are forecasted to remain above average moving into the spring. As a result, Plan 2014 will continue to release high outflows taking into consideration all interests throughout the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River system.
IJC noted that, while Lake Ontario remains well above average, historically, water levels in winter have not provided an accurate indicator of the peak later in spring. Weather and hydrologic conditions play a much greater role than water regulation in influencing water levels and, while impossible to predict, the probability of a repeat of last spring's exceptional rains and subsequent high water levels is low.
"Nonetheless, extreme conditions may occur in any given year, so shoreline property and business owners, and local government officials should always be prepared for a full range of water levels on Lake Ontario at any given time in the future," Bevacqua said.
So, it's best to hope for a dry, sunny spring.