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New York town fights to keep Lake Ontario at bay

Veronica Volk
Great Lakes Today

Lake Ontario is 20 inches higher than normal, and New York towns along the south shore are filling sandbags and making other flood preparations.

In Port Bay, the high water has already damaged the town’s protective barrier beach. Now, residents are scrambling for ways to hold back the lake’s waters.

Port Bay is a cove off Lake Ontario, just east of Rochester. It’s narrow – no more than 500 feet across in some places – but stretches nearly two miles into the surrounding farm land.

The shore is lined with little white cottages interspersed with larger, full-time residences.

Janice Prossick lives right on the water, and at the edge of her property is a long floating dock, a little paddle boat, and a clear view across the bay. She just moved here full time, to get out of the city.

"I stood in the middle of the yard, I looked around here and I said, yup. This is home. This is it."

Now, she's worried about that home. The only thing protecting the small bay from the powerful waves of the great lake is the Port Bay Barrier -- a narrow strip of beach lined with a few trees and shrubs. It’s been eroding for years.

Lindsey Gerstenslager, with Wayne County Soil and Water, has been working on a plan to conserve the barrier, but it's challenging.

“It’s a little bit nerve-wracking," she says. "It’s a new world, trying to see what the rules are.”

Conservation is more complicated than it used to be. For example, one suggestion has been to install some boulders or concrete along the shore, but that could end up causing more erosion in other places. It also prevents fish from spawning there.

Gerstenslager also has a lot of variables to consider with climate change. Storms are worse and more frequent, and the lake hasn’t frozen in recent winters, so there’s no respite from the eroding power of waves and tides.

“Mother Nature’s not giving us a chance to get caught up," she says. "She’s constantly changing.”

Credit Veronica Volk / Great Lakes Today
Great Lakes Today
The breach in the Port Bay Barrier is nearly 50 feet.

As if to prove that fact, just a few days after that interview waves ripped a 50-foot hole in the barrier right where Gerstenslager had been standing.

Now, damaging waves and debris are rushing through the breach and clogging the bay.

From the end of her dock, Prossick can see white caps crashing over the breach in the barrier. She points out the large logs and branches washing up against her property.

“We really need help," she says, "and we need it fast.”

The area’s congressman and some residents blame flooding and erosion along Lake Ontario on a new plan that manages lake levels.

Experts, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, disagree. They say months of heavy snow and rain caused the high waters, but they acknowledge that the new management plan is likely to bring more frequent floods in the future.

That, along with the breach, has residents like Prossick pushing for immediate action.

“We don’t have time to study and wonder and postulate and evaluate," she says. "I think we just need to start making some decisions and hoping they’re the right ones.”

But other Port Bay residents are still advocating for a long-term conservation plan. David Ulrich is with the Port Bay Improvement Association, and they’re also involved in the conservation project. He says he understands the long process, but not everyone feels the same way.

“There are people that want us to take our time and make sure it gets done right," says Ulrich, "and there are people that just want it solved right now.”

“The hard part is trying to come up with a balance for everybody that works.”

Originally, Gertenslager expected to have a long-term conservation plan ready by fall. Now she and others are considering faster action.

Meanwhile, Lake Ontario is forecast to continue rising over the next couple of months, which means more stress on the barrier. And more risk that it won't be able to protect Port Bay.

Veronica Volk is a Reporter/Producer for WXXI News. She comes from WFUV Public Radio, where she began her broadcasting career as a reporter covering the Bronx, and the greater New York City area. She later became the Senior Producer of WFUV’s weekly public affairs show, Cityscape. Originally from Ocean County, New Jersey, Veronica got her B.A. in Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University, concentrating on Media, Culture, and Society.