Lake Ontario flooding: Week of rain could boost flooding

May 2, 2017

Updated Friday, May 26, at 4:45 p.m.

The region braced for a long stretch of rain and showers -- weather that could contribute to more flooding.

The National Weather Service forecast calls for rain or a chance or showers every day through Thursday. 

And the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River board, which controls outflows from a big dam, says it be "several weeks" before the lake is significantly lower.

The board said there still is a lot of water coming from Lake Erie and area streams -- as well as the forecast rain. That will all keep lake levels high -- even as outflows from the Moses-Saunders dam are increased downstream. 

With Memorial Day weekend kicking off, officials are making a wide range of damage assessments -- from businesses to sand dunes.

In Clayton, N.Y., the St. Lawrence River has submerged some of the town's Riverwalk.

“I’m looking at this dock line, it’s going over the top of the dock and usually it’s a three-foot drop," shopowner Emilie Cardinaux told North Country Public Radio.

But boats and ships are still passing through.

“If a boat goes by, the wake absolutely pushes the water right into the basement," Cardinaux said. "People don’t realize how much impact that has when they go fast in their boats.”

Historic high water also is washing away the freshwater sand dunes along Lake Ontario in Oswego and Jefferson counties. These strips of land -- the only freshwater dunes in the state -- protect shoreline communities and in some places they’re completely inundated.

“We’ve lost the entire beach area," Dave White of New York Sea Grant told WRVO. "It’s now cutting into the dune area. And that takes years to rebuild. Many of those areas will need to be re-vegetated. Many of those are areas that are extremely common for migrating shorebirds, and other wildlife.” 

Thursday, May 25

N.Y. State Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle is introducing legislation to establish a $105 million grant program for flood recovery along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.

 

The money would help affected property and business owners, as well as local governments. Some funds could be used for planning to mitigate future damage.

 

“There are significant pots of money, so to speak, in economic development that we typically don’t line out, project by project, when we pass the budget because we recognize there may be some unanticipated needs," Morelle told WXXI.

 

The state Senate recently proposed similar legislation that totals about $55 million. 

 

A flood warning has been issued for the southwestern shore of Lake Ontario, as rain and high winds batter the area.

The National Weather Service says a combination of high lake levels, northeast winds and higher waves will cause flooding and erosion along the shore. That's bad news for an area that has been coping with flood waters for weeks.

The flood warning is in effect until 2 a.m. Friday.

The weather service also warned that swimming is dangerous, due to life-threatening waves and currents. It urged people to stay out of the water and keep away from piers and breakwalls.

The International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River board says lake levels have been stable over the past nine days. But Rob Coldwell, a Canadian representative for the board, worries that this week's rain may cause problems.

The lake level is "at 75.68 [meters], to be specific," he told the Cornwall (Ont.) Standard-Freeholder. "And the highest it reached was on Friday, May 18, at 78.87. Some people are hopeful it will have peaked, but we are cautioning that with rain coming over the next couple of day, we might see a secondary peak."

Meanwhile, New York's governor says some state workers are preparing for extended hours on weekends to help those dealing with flood damage.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo says the Department of Environmental Conservation's extended hours will begin this weekend and last all summer.

He says many damaged properties along Lake Ontario are summer or weekend homes.

"So people coming up, seeing the damage for the first time, and understanding what they need to do.  They need to get a permit, they can go to DEC, the DEC will be open when they need it, " Cuomo said, according to WXXI.

Cuomo says the DEC's goal is to get those permits done within a day.

Cuomo also said that $5 million in grants is available for small businesses with physical damage.

On this Memorial Day weekend, high waters and floating debris could pose dangers for recreational boaters on the region's waterways. 

Branches, docks, oil cans, jet-skis — the high water has carried all kinds of junk out of boathouses and down the St. Lawrence River or onto Lake Ontario, North Country Public Radio reports.

"I keep on saying to people, 'eyes in front; don't look away,'" Stephanie Weiss, who lives along the river, told North Country.

Boaters are encouraged not be on the water at night when they can't see what's ahead. Also, many rocks and other landmarks are now underwater -- essentially new shoals that are not marked on charts. 

In the Ottawa area, the price for flooding will be high for some homeowners -- they won't be allowed to rebuild.

Gatineau homeowners whose residences need to be demolished and are located in an area expected to flood within 20 years will have to start over somewhere else, the CBC reports.  They will get up to $250,000 to rebuild.

About 1,800 Gatineau homes were flooded by the Ottawa River, and 75 percent are in high-risk areas.

On the St. Lawrence, the New York town of Alexandria Bay has come up with a novel solution to boost tourism: a floating dock.

"A resident from St. Lawrence County saw the auction, called another businessman in Alexandria Bay, who called me," tour boat operator Ron Thomson, told WRVO. Add a crane from Clayton, a trucker from Lafargeville, and lots of volunteers for manual labor, and Alexandria Bay had an operational dock.

Deputy Mayor Mark Reynolds says the dock is important for a successful Memorial Day weekend, because it’s like having another 100 parking spaces, just for boats.

The flooding is disrupting recreational attractions along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.

The Antique Boat Museum in Clayton is open for the season but it has suspended its popular boat rides, and New York State has suspended activities at the Cape Vincent Fisheries Station, North Country Public Radio reports.

State boat launches at Kring Point, Burham Point, Cedar Point, and Grass Point are all closed for now, though others in the region are open.

"Lots of attractions along the river are still open and actually unaffected by the high water. It just depends on where they’re situated," said Peyton Taylor, the state parks' regional director for the Thousand Islands. "The most important thing that people need to know is — call the facility where you’re planning on going before you go. The conditions change quickly."

Further west, along the lake, workers are trying to save a 17 mile-long sand dune at Sandy Island Beach State Park in Pulaski. New York State also has lost campsites in a couple of parks and some ground around the Thirty Mile Lighthouse at the Golden Hills State Park in Niagara County.

Meanwhile, New York is offering millions of dollars in flood aid along the Lake Ontario shoreline.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said $10 million will be available to localities that need help to repair roads, sewers, flood walls and other infrastructure.

State Sen. Robert Ortt, whose district includes the shorelines of Niagara and Orleans Counties, welcomed the governor's announcement and said lawmakers were set to act this week on a bill providing help to private property owners.

"This bill would set aside relief funding for private property owners, small businesses, farms as well as not-for-profits who are impacted by these lake levels, who suffered damage and who otherwise are not covered under FEMA, state emergency relief funding or their insurance," Ortt told WBFO.

The new Great Lakes Flood Recovery Grant Program would make $55 million available to those affected by flooding along Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, Lake Champlain and the St. Lawrence River.

The grant program would provide up to $20 million administered through the state’s Empire State Development Corporation to help with physical flood-related damage.

Grants would provide up to $15,500 for owners of residences, $30,000 for owners of multiple dwellings, $50,000 for small businesses and farms, and $100,000 for not-for-profit corporations for damage not covered under insurance or an existing local, state, or federal program. 

Municipalities and special districts would be eligible for a total of $20 million in grants -- up to $1 million each -- for infrastructure costs not already covered under existing programs. Counties would be eligible for a total of $5 million in new grants for flood mitigation or flood control projects.

Although heavy rains have passed, Ortt says winds continue to stir up waves in spots. He told WBFO there are many areas of concern in his district, with more serious problems in Orleans County and to the east. 

Ortt expects the negative economic impact to be felt for some time. He pointed to the example of Olcott Beach, and the recent decision by operators to cancel swimming for the entire season due to flood damage. 

"The problem is without the beach being opened, a lot of recreational fishing and recreational draw that the beach is, to the Town of Olcott and to that part of Niagara County, those shops and those restaurants are probably going to see a decline," he said.

Montreal and Ottawa are also providing financial advice for residents affected by the flooding. Cleanup efforts continue in those cities, with extra trash removal schedules and special sandbag collections scheduled.

This story will be updated.