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Shipping season opens on Lake Ontario after delay over water levels

St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation

The shipping season on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River is getting underway nearly two weeks later than industry stakeholders had hoped. The extra time was used by the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board to reduce water levels in the system in order to mitigate the chance of flooding later this year. Unprecedented water levels in 2017 and 2019 caused devastating flooding along the shoreline.

Bryce Carmichael, the U.S. Secretary of the Board, says the shipping season delay was fairly effective. Water outflows from Lake Ontario through the Moses-Saunders Dam reached a record level not only for the end of March, but also for the entire month.

"We were able to contribute to lake levels being fairly stable through the month of March compared with historic records," Carmichael said. "So, I think the Board feels that deviation was quite successful."

Carmichael says because of those high outflows, their forecasts show there is a slightly lower chance this year of reaching 247.7 feet, which is where shoreline property owners start to see an impact. But it's still a 50 percent chance and despite their efforts, Lake Ontario is about 1.5 feet above its long-term average.

That prompted some like North Country Assemblyman Mark Walczyk to call for a longer delay to the shipping season.

"Whether it's marina, restaurant, specialty or bait shop, many businesses had only started to recover their infrastructure and finances before last year's flooding," Walcyzk wrote to the International Joint Commission, which oversees the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board. "While this winter doesn't appear to be as wet as some recently, the upper Great Lakes are filled to the brim. We know what that means for the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario... if you delay the shipping season further, we may be able to continue a deviation that will prevent flooding in many areas of the river and lake."

But Carmichael said that is not possible because outflows now have to be reduced anyway due to rising water levels downstream from Lake Ontario. In fact, he said the Board is already deviating from part of Plan 2014, the water management plan for the lake and river, that would otherwise require lower outflows than are currently being used.

"[The Board has] been given the deviation authority to consider all options for providing relief to upstream and downstream stakeholders and to date have employed a lot of those deviations from plan limits to achieve that end," Carmichael said. "But there's not a lot left on the table honestly. So, if we see extraordinary water supplies through April, there's still a risk of very impactful water levels."

Payne Horning is a reporter and producer, primarily focusing on the city of Oswego and Oswego County. He has a passion for covering local politics and how it impacts the lives of everyday citizens. Originally from Iowa, Horning moved to Muncie, Indiana to study journalism, telecommunications and political science at Ball State University. While there, he worked as a reporter and substitute host at Indiana Public Radio. He also covered the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly for the statewide Indiana Public Broadcasting network.