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Lake Ontario regulators ease outflows amid favorable conditions

Flickr, Creative Commons

With all of the Great Lakes below where they were at this time last year, including Lake Ontario which is down almost 2 feet and is forecast to rise only a few inches by the end of March, the international body that helps regulate the Lake's water levels is taking its foot off the gas a bit. The Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board will no longer deviate from its water management plan, called Plan 2014, meaning it's now going to reduce how much water is released from the lake to the St. Lawrence River through the Moses-Saunders Dam.

"The risk of flooding on Lake Ontario and the upper St. Lawrence River has declined from moderate in December 2020 to low," a representative for the Board said in a press release. "In December, the risk analysis indicated a 28% chance of water levels exceeding a threshold at which damages occur in many shoreline communities. The risk is now down to 8%."

The Board approved higher outflows than Plan 2014 normally permits for January and February in part because of Lake Erie. That body of water, which flows directly into Lake Ontario, was a couple of feet above its long-term average in late 2020. The Board notes that conditions have since changed - Lake Erie has declined, now a foot below where it was last year at this time.

Dave McDowell, mayor of the Village of Sodus Point, thinks the Board's actions and natural conditions made the difference.

"We're below the long-term average by a little more than 4 inches, there's not much snow pack in any of the Great Lakes regions or the Ottawa River from anything I've been able to find, so I think this is actually a good move," McDowell said. 

McDowell said the Board should remain on its toes, though, if this spring brings heavy rains, and there are signs the Board plans to do so. Although the Board is not going to deviate from Plan 2014 anymore, it is keeping the authority to do so if necessary and will continue to keep outflows at "very high levels" under Plan 2014.

"Due to the uncertainty of seasonal conditions and the potential for conditions to rapidly change, the Board intends to meet regularly through the spring," the press release said. "The Board can implement additional deviations to increase flows above Plan Limits should conditions warrant. However, the Board continues to emphasize that, if basin weather conditions should become extremely wet, similar to those observed in 2017 and 2019, no deviation strategy will prevent water levels that can cause flooding and damage to shoreline properties. Eliminating such damages is beyond the reach of outflow regulation and are more reliably addressed through coastal resilience and planning."

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.