IJC blasted for reducing Lake Ontario outflow

David Godfrey

State and local leaders are again blasting the groups charged with regulating Lake Ontario's water levels, this time for reducing the rate of outflows from the lake. 

The International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board, which manages outflows at the Moses-Saunders Dam, reduced outflows Tuesday morning from about 367,272 cubic feet per second to 349,968 cfs. The reductions were aimed at producing better conditions for boaters along the St. Lawrence River.

The previous rate of outflow — sustained since June 14 — was among the highest ever set, and caused hazardous conditions and restrictions for river boaters, board spokespersons say.

Arun Heer, U.S. secretary for the board, said the reduction is in line with Plan 2014's thresholds that strike a balance between river currents and high lake levels. In other words, the plan aims to balance the interests of commercial shippers and recreational boaters in the river with those of landowners hurt by high lake levels.

“It's to provide safe navigation conditions in the St. Lawrence River,” Heer said. "When the lake reaches a certain level, it shifts outflows to make the river safe for navigation.”

Frank Bevacqua, spokesperson for the International Joint Commission — which ordered the implementation of Plan 2014 — said that even with the same outflow rate, as lake levels drop, currents speed up. That means the high outflow is having a greater effect now than it was in mid-June, because the lake has fallen nearly a foot since then.

“The currents increase and become more dangerous as the lake declines at the same outflow rate,” Bevacqua said.

The outflow reduction met almost immediate criticism from state and local officials. Many blame the IJC's water level management for much of this year's historically high lake levels. 

"Once again, the International Joint Commission has demonstrated extreme disregard for New Yorkers by prioritizing shipping interests over the safety and security of people living along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. "Water levels remain at historic highs and it is senseless to reduce outflows at this time. This decision must be immediately reversed to protect our residents, businesses and communities along the shoreline."

Niagara County Legislator David Godfrey, R-Wilson, questioned why outflows would be reduced when lake levels are already approximately seven inches above the "trigger levels" at which the board can deviate from scheduled outflows.

Under Plan 2014, the board cannot deviate until the lake levels reach triggers that go as high as 248.3 feet in early June — 27 to 28 inches above the average for that time of the year. 

By the time the lake hit the trigger on April 28, Niagara County had already declared a state of emergency as the high waters wrecked shoreline properties. 

“If that's above the trigger level, they should be letting more water out. But they reduced the outflow," Godfrey said.

Godfrey added Plan 2014 hamstrings the board, preventing them from releasing water in early spring to offset high inflows later on.

"It all goes back to the fact that they did not let out water as they had in previous years to accommodate any estimated snowmelt and rain,” Godfrey said.

Despite the outflow decrease, the lake is likely to continue to fall in the coming months. The last Army Corps of Engineers update on Aug. 4 projected a 10-inch drop by early September. (But Bevacqua said those estimates can vary wildly based on precipitation, and as such, are often only accurate up to a few days out.)

An outflow reduction of approximately 11,000 cfs will result in another about 0.6 inches of water on the lake after a week, if precipitation and inflows remain the same.

But precipitation and inflow from Lake Erie are sure to fluctuate, and those are the biggest factors determining the rate of decline.

“The outflows are still high. That reduction has a pretty minimal effect on the decline of Lake Ontario,” Bevacqua said. "The primary way to reduce the lake level is with drier weather."

Even with higher outflows, lake levels won't drop as quickly as most shoreline landowners would like. But at current rates, Bevacqua said, the lake should return to average levels by years end. 

“The lake is declining at a relatively rapid rate for this time of year," Bevacqua said. "If you look at the six month forecast, if the water supplies to the lake are normal, then the lake should be down to its long-term average by the end of the year. 

"But it really depends on how wet the rest of the year is,” he added.

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