Lake Ontario flooding in Greece, NY, in 2019.

IJC didn’t do enough to lower Lake Ontario level last fall, engineer says

Spring flooding will be higher than necessary, Gigas says

Residents and businesses along Lake Ontario will experience more flooding than necessary this spring because the International Joint Commission (IJC) did not release enough water from the lake last fall, says a report by an engineer who lives near the lake in Rochester, N.Y.

Bernie Gigas

On April 9, Bernie Gigas told a webinar organized by the group United Shoreline Ontario that while the commission did a good job releasing as much water as possible from January to March this year, it failed to do enough during the last half of 2019.

Water levels in all the Great Lakes are at or near record levels due to wet weather and some flooding is expected in coming weeks as snow in the watershed melts. Gigas said he thinks the commission’s current forecast is optimistic and he fears Lake Ontario could rise close to the levels it hit in 2019 and 2017 when major flood damage occurred.

“The risk is still high, we are at the mercy of the Ottawa River and the weather,” Gigas said.

The level of the Ottawa River causes problems for Lake Ontario because it contributes to higher water levels near Montreal, which means the IJC cannot release as much water from Lake Ontario as it otherwise could.

In his presentation, Gigas analyzed water levels in Lake Ontario, above the Moses-Saunders Dam at Cornwall, and downstream at Montreal and Lake St. Louis. He said the dam has provided more benefit to areas downstream by reducing the flood level and the duration of flooding. He called on the IJC to move to a more balanced approach. The commission has begun a review of how it operates the dam to control water levels and Gigas said he hopes it will consider allowing higher levels downstream.

“Shipping is being protected and Montreal can take more water,” Gigas said. He suggested options such as restricting shipping some days or at certain hours so that the flow of water can be increased. The opening of shipping was delayed in March to allow time for more water to be sent down river.

Sarah Delicate of United Shorelines Ontario said that the commission gives undue attention to the financial impact on the shipping industry of increasing the water flow, while not giving enough attention to the high cost of flooding on residents and businesses along the lake shore.

“We’re taking the hit so that shipping doesn’t,” she said.

Delicate said the ongoing restrictions imposed by COVID-19 will make it hard for communities to respond to flooding this spring. Emergency management organizers say that sandbagging lines will violate social distancing requirements. “The ability to mitigate flooding is challenged this year,” she said.

Freelance journalist.

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