The record-high water levels in Lake Ontario this year are not just flooding shoreline communities, they're also permanently changing the landscape. The higher waves are accelerating erosion along New York's shoreline, threatening property owners and the environment.
That's the case in North Sandy Pond, located in Oswego County. Both in appearance and function, the sand dunes in this community are best described as two gates. These narrow, 3.5-mile long strips of land separate the pond from the lake. And through a small channel in between the north and south dunes, water from the lake trickles in, but the powerful waves are kept out.
Local resident Ron Fisher says that balance is why this community that grew along the shore of Sandy Pond has thrived for so long.
"They’re not really built for being lake homes, they’re built for being on a pond, which normally stays quite peaceful and the wave action is dampened by that barrier beach," Fisher said. "We depend on that. That’s really the lifeblood for us is having the barrier beach intact."
But these days, that gate has more than one opening.
As water levels went up in 2017 and again this year, the waves wiped away much of the beach on the side of the north dune that faces the lake. And the lake has now swelled to a point that its waves have punched holes in at least four spots in this dune.
On a recent trip to see the damage, Fisher got out of the boat in green, waist-high boots to measure how deep the water is in one of the openings.
Greene Point homeowner Mike Garland says he remembers when you used to have to climb over a hill of sand in this very spot to see to the lake. Now, the only thing between the pond and the lake here are the few remaining trees that once sat atop the dune.
"The stronger the west wind, the bigger the waves, the bigger the hole will get," Garland said. "It will just keep washing it out bit by bit."
Cathy Goodnough, owner of the Greene Point Marina on Sandy Pond, has experienced devastating flooding at her business and seen many homeowners here forced to leave because of water levels.
"Sandy Pond hosts some of the best beaches and tourism and we get a lot of people here," Goodnough said. "A lot of businesses rely on this. It’s not just marinas. It’s every little mom and pop, the bars, restaurants - everybody relies on these people to come to their residence and as you can see, we don’t have that."
The destruction of the dunes also presents a threat to the local wildlife. The Piping Plover, an endangered species in the Great Lakes, uses the dune's beaches to nest, but much of it has been stripped away by the lake and dropped into Sandy Pond.
Researcher Tom Hart says one way to potentially stop this damage is by reversing it.
"It's a matter of taking the sand that's been deposited and moving it back where it came from and restore the shoreline to 2011 levels," Hart said.
Hart is leading the North Sandy Pond Resiliency Project, a nature-based attempt to fix the problem. It has support from local landowners, the Town of Sandy Creek, and New York state. Together, they have raised $500,000 to fund the relocation of sand from the bottom of the pond through hydraulic dredging into long, mesh-like bags called geotubes. Once water levels go down this fall, those bags will be laid along what remains of the beach on the north sand dune. After all of the water has drained from the tubes, they will be broken open and the reconstruction of the beach can begin.
Fisher says this is a huge undertaking that's never been attempted here before and there's no guarantee it will even work, but the stakes are too high to not act.
"People have their whole lives invested in properties and businesses and everything else happening around here that we need to make sure are protected and taken care of," Fisher said.
The North Sandy Pond Resiliency Project has raised enough money to move forward with the planned restoration, but members of the group say they are still accepting donations. Every additional dollar will expand the group's capacity to relocate more sand.