Forecasts show Lake Ontario could be higher in early 2020 than in 2019

James Neiss/staff photographerThe water challenge around the disk golf hole No. 1 at Wilson Tuscarora State Park was definitely not planned for, it's just one of the many problems caused by rising Lake Ontario water levels.

Landowners from Youngstown to the Thousand Islands, still reeling from the worst Lake Ontario flooding on record, are hoping 2020 brings more moderate lake levels.

But the latest forecasts from the International Joint Commission show that by March 2020, the lake is likely to be on par with or higher than it was this past March. 

The IJC uses a probabilistic forecast, projecting high- and low-water extremes that have a 5 percent chance of occurring. Under especially dry conditions, by late March the lake would be at 245 feet — just below the long-term average water level. But if especially wet conditions prevail, as they did in 2017 and this year, the lake would be 247.7 feet — the level at which most landowners begin feeling the effects of high water. 

The forecast also includes a 50 percent "average," meaning there is a 50/50 probability the lake will rise above that projected water level. That "average" is 246 feet by late March — almost exactly where the lake was in March 2019. 

Many shoreline residents are worried this forecast could portend yet another year of record-high water.

Jim Shea, president of the Lake Ontario St. Lawrence River Alliance, said that after the record-high water of 2017 and this summer, many lakeshore business-owners are no the brink.

"We’re extremely worried," Shea said. "I’ve talked to half a dozen marinas around the area, and they say if this happens again in 2020, they’re out of business.”

But the IJC says the forecasts do not show that especially high water is likely in 2020.

The lake reached 246 feet in March 2018, and yet last year the lake barely surpassed 247 feet during its May peak. For most of summer 2018, Lake Ontario's level was right about average.

A spokesman for the International Lake Ontario St. Lawrence River Board, an IJC subsidiary that sets lake outflows, said flooding this year and in 2017 largely resulted from conditions that developed later in the spring and summer.

“The events of 2019 were unprecedented, as they were in 2017," said Bryce Carmichael, secretary of the board. “We were basically at the same level in 2018 and we didn’t see flooding.”

According to the IJC, total Lake Ontario inflows from Jan. 1 to July 1 were higher than in any previous year on record over that six-month period. This year, the high inflows mostly came from the Niagara River via Lake Erie, which itself hit record highs for much of the summer. As of Sept. 6, Lake Erie remained three inches higher than in any past September on record, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

In 2017, high precipitation caused the bulk of the high lake levels, states the IJC.

In other words, high water in March will not turn into springtime floods if precipitation and inflows from Lake Erie are low. 

Carmichael said the IJC estimates a 28 percent probability that the lake will exceed 247.7 feet at any point next year. “That’s when a lot of people start to see problems — at that (247.7 feet) level," he said.

The IJC cannot predict precipitation six months in advance, but it can estimated what the inflows might be, based off forecasting for the level of Lake Erie. 

The Army Corps projects Lake Erie will be between 2 1/2 and 4 1/2 feet above average next February, with the projected "average" falling in roughly the middle of those extremes at 572.7 feet. That level is about an inch or two below where Lake Erie's surface stood this past February.

Carmichael said the board's projections account for Lake Erie's anticipated high levels.

In recent years, many lakeshore residents have argued the IJC has kept outflows too low over the fall and winter, resulting in higher water when spring rains and snowmelt rush into the system.

These critics blame the IJC's new water management strategy, Plan 2014, arguing the plan restricts outflows to the detriment of shoreline residents.

Since the IJC adapted the plan in December 2016, the lake has hit record high water levels twice.

Tony McKenna, a civil engineer and Plan 2014 critic, said that to avert potential flooding in 2020, the IJC needs to set outflows higher than the rates prescribed by Plan 2014.

"If they do it now, they could get the lake down enough to accept the water that they’re inevitably going to have to deal with next spring," McKenna said.

“If it’s a wet year, they’ll kind of be in a desperate situation," he added. "They need to get this lake down.”

Carmichael said the board is considering at least a dozen options that would keep outflows above the levels in Plan 2014 in order to reduce the likelihood of flooding next spring. 

"The board is very concerned, as all of the shoreline residents and property-owners are, at the possibility of a high water event," he said. "They’re committed to doing everything they can to lower the probability of seeing those water levels next year.”

However, raising outflows has impacts on others who rely on the lake and the St. Lawrence River, forcing the board to try and strike a balance between conflicting interests. High outflows speed currents in the river, causing delays or complete stoppages in shipping, as well as interfering with municipal and industrial water intakes.

From June 13 to Aug. 20, the board let water through a dam near Massena at a record-high 2.75 million gallons per second — a rate that forced the St. Lawrence Seaway to implement speed controls and prohibit passing other vessels in some parts of the river. Those delays cost the U.S. and Canadian economies about $2.3 to $3 million per day in lost trade, according to the Chamber for Marine Commerce.

Carmichael said the board is investigating the impacts of several options to keep outflows above the safe navigation limit. These options include closing the St. Lawrence Seaway early and temporarily stopping commercial shipping for a period in the fall, while the board releases more water.

After the Seaway closes, the board will have to keep outflows low so that ice cover can form over the St. Lawrence River. Regulators say this strategy is needed to prevent ice jams that could block the river's path entirely.

This year, Carmichael said, the board will consult with ice management experts to determine if higher-than-usual outflows would interfere with ice formation.

“The board is proactively trying to investigate all the options to maximize the flows," he said.

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