Lake Ontario Floodwaters

The high water level of Lake Ontario has reached historic proportions, causing significant shoreline erosion and property damage to homes and businesses that will tally into the millions. I grew up in Sea Breeze and spent my summers as a kid hanging out with my friends on Durand Eastman beach and fishing in the lake and Irondequoit Bay. In later years, I ran a sportfishing charter service for trout and salmon on Lake Ontario from a base at Newport Marina on that same bay. In all those years, never have I seen anything like what is happening on the lake today.

One of the reasons that I’m writing about this is because of the controversy that is brewing with regard to the new Plan 2014, which took effect in January, and which governs the seasonal water levels on Lake Ontario. It is administered by the International Joint Commission whose members are appointed by the American and Canadian governments.

The IJC claims that the current lake level, which is about 3 feet higher than I ever remember seeing it before, is caused by “an unbelievable amount of spring rain and snowmelt.” Critics challenge that assessment and blame Plan 2014 for the flooding. I’m not an expert in hydrology, but I feel that it is a combination of both factors.

First, one must consider the immense size of the vast Lake Ontario watershed itself. On the American side, it begins 157 miles south of the lake in the hills of Pennsylvania, where the Genesee River literally springs to life. Then factor in the river’s many tributaries, which include the outlets of Conesus, Hemlock, Canadice, and Honeoye Lakes. Add to that the fact that each of the eleven Finger Lakes eventually empties into Lake Ontario along with hundreds of other lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams from Niagara to the Adirondacks. And the same thing happens on the Canadian side of the lake.

The water level of Lake Ontario is controlled by a hydroelectric dam located at Massena, New York, on the St. Lawrence River, which is the lake’s outlet, and the outflow from that dam is administered by the IJC. My argument is this: Knowing that snowmelt and spring rains were forthcoming – especially given that the Adirondacks and Ontario, Canada, were experiencing heavier than usual snowfall at the time – why didn’t the IJC lower the level of Lake Ontario in the fall and early winter in order to accommodate the additional volume of water that would eventually enter the lake? It seems pretty logical to me – but then again, I’m not a hydrologist.

The bottom line as I see it is this: Mother Nature and the IJC are both to blame. But that is of little consolation to the folks who are being affected by the floodwaters.


Story and photo by John Adamski