Executive order opens door for state assistance; Lake Ontario water levels continue to climb
By Terry Duffy
With the prospect of Lake Ontario water levels going ever higher, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order Monday, declaring a state of emergency for all shoreline areas from Youngstown to Watertown.
“We are now looking at the real possibility of the flood like we had in 2017,” Cuomo said in a special visit to the Newfane Marina in the hamlet of Olcott. “The level is up … and we are dealing with Mother Nature; the problem is it’s either rain or wind. It’s not just the water levels it’s the wave action. The wave action is driven by winds, so if the waves pick up, or if we get more rain, then we’ll have another flooding situation.”
With lake levels this week reaching 248.39 feet, less than a foot off the 2017 record of 249.10 feet, Cuomo, flanked by local, state and federal officials, said their response this time around is to be proactive.
“We are preparing now for the reoccurrence of the 2017 flooding situation. (It) was devastating and brought a lot of damage and a lot of hardship for thousands on the entire shoreline of Lake Ontario. It’s hundreds of miles of New York state property. The best course (of) action is we have to do everything we can to be prepared before the flooding actually happens. And that’s what we’re doing,” Cuomo said.
Covering all lakeshore shoreline communities and also property interests on the lower river from the mouth of the lake at Youngstown to Lewiston, the emergency order imposes a maximum speed limit for boats at 5 mph up to 1,000 feet from the shore, with latitude extended for communities to extend it further. It also provides response officials a variety of equipment and personnel to aid affected property owners, businesses and communities along a 326-mile stretch of the lakeshore in the state. Included are aqua dams, thousands of sandbags, barriers and pumps, along with state Department of Environmental Conservation crews, engineers and state Army National Guard personnel to assist local communities, businesses and private lakeshore property owners in need.
Cuomo emphasized the state’s plan this time around is to get a better handle on any potential flooding threat rather than respond after the fact.
“Let’s do everything we can to get ahead of it and be prepared,” Cuomo said. “Once the flooding happens it is too late to put precautions in place. You can’t get people in there; you can’t get equipment in there so the time to prepare is now. Depending on the forecast we’re looking at the potential of flood levels as soon as this week.”
Cuomo announced that those impacted – be the lakeshore residents, businesses or other interests facing potential flooding impacts are asked to contact the state’s assistance number, 518-292-2200, for help.
“If homeowners are in the path of damage, contact your local government officials, have them contact the state and we’ll get you what you need,” Cuomo said. “We’re going to have more National Guard, more equipment, more pumps, more aqua dams, more sandbags, anything you can need.
“But the time is now. I hope for the best, but we have to prepare for the worst. If you need help, let us know now. We have the personnel, we have the equipment, but we need to know the local governments, the homeowners, where to help.”
State DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said he recently authorized DEC permit procedures, enabling affected property owners to get immediate assistance to address any damages from the flooding impacts.
“Getting ahead of this right now is real important, for businesses, homeowners and municipalities. Two weeks ago, I signed a general permit. That enables anyone who has shoreline damage to come to DEC and get a really quick authorization, get coverage, to begin doing emergency shoreline work,” Seggos said.
“What I want to emphasize, don’t wait for that major damage to start occurring and come to us afterward’s. Come to us now. You see a situation that’s presenting a danger, please reach out to us. Go to our website, www.dec.ny.gov.
“On the website you’ll see all this general information about getting coverage for it. Reach out to (DEC) regional permit administrators, we have an RPA in each of the regions here, you’ll get some quick action from us,” Seggos said. “We understand exactly what you’re going through, our engineers are ready to help you get through this problem.”
With the International Joint Commission announcing the appointment of former state Assemblywoman Jane Corwin of Clarence as its new U.S. Section chair, Cuomo offered his praise on the news and expressed hopes that the IJC would now begin to address Plan 2014. The widely criticized measure manages Lake Ontario water levels into the St. Lawrence system and continues to be faulted for the worsening flooding throughout the lake region.
“The only bright spot is the IJC has a new member on it now – Jane Corwin. I say amen to that. Finally. Jane Corwin will be at least be a New York voice on the IJC,” Cuomo said. “At least now we’ll have someone arguing New York’s case, because I believe New York has gotten the short end of the stick (or) the high end of the lake.
“We need someone to fight for us and having a New Yorker on the IJC is going to help,” Cuomo said.
Joining Corwin on the IJC are Pierre Béland of Québec as the Canadian Section chair and new members Henry Lickers of Ontario, Merrell-Ann Phare of Manitoba, Robert Sisson of Michigan and Lance Yohe of North Dakota.
This week the IJC, which continues to adjust Lake Ontario levels to address flooding on the Ottawa River and the St. Lawrence system near Montreal, again increased its lake discharges at the Massena dam, from 289,600 feet per second to 296,600 feet per second – its highest rate since mid-March 2019.
Despite that, water levels continue to climb in the lake, with the result being aggravated flooding of shoreline areas in both New York state as well as the province of Ontario.
Locally, the lake flooding has essentially put boat slips out of service at the Hedley Marina in Olcott. It has also worsened erosion problems along the entire southern shore of New York and continues to disrupt boating activities in the lower Niagara River and lake. Boat launches at Fort Niagara, in Youngstown and in Lewiston are all reporting high waters, while lower river tourism businesses such as Niagara Jet Adventures and Whirlpool Jetboats continue to maintain and adjust their operations.
Meanwhile, water levels on Lake Ontario and throughout the entire Great Lakes system continue to climb with more rain expected.
Flooding and erosion seen along the lakeshore in Youngstown.
Flooding on the lower river at the Youngstown.