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Expert says water levels expected to be higher this year

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CLAYTON — Lake Ontario water levels are well below average at the moment, but experts say the lake is projected to reach long-term average levels in June and likely to get even higher later this summer.

During a panel discussion Saturday in Clayton, George V. Cotroneo, a representative of the International St. Lawrence River Board of Control, a binational organization that controls the Massena dam, said the lake currently is 7 inches below the long-term average and some 11 inches lower than it was this time last year.

“But there is a little bit of good news for Lake Ontario,” Mr. Cotroneo said. “Based on current conditions and what the forecast is — for the weather conditions into the future over the next several months, as the best as we can guess it — Lake Ontario is going to reach its long-term average sometime in June, and it’s got a good chance of being above average for the rest of the summer. So it’ll be better than it was last year.”

As of April 11, the lake was at 244.92 feet, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’s website.

Last year, winter water levels were above average, but with little snowpack due to the mild weather, there also was little to no water supply from spring snowmelt. Meanwhile, until mid-March, the Board of Control was releasing large amounts of water from the lake based on early predictions of high summer water levels.

Additionally, the continuing loss of Great Lakes ice cover has led to more evaporation in the wintertime and a decline in water supply from Lake Erie, Ontario’s primary source. All this contributed to low water levels and a shorter boating season last summer.

This year, the Board of Control also is expecting average precipitation and higher temperatures, which could lead to more evaporation later in the year.

“The board is looking to store water for Lake Ontario — if opportunities arise to where they can do that, especially to prevent flooding downstream — in case the evaporation starts to pick up toward the end of the year,” Mr. Cotroneo said.

Mr. Cotroneo was part of a three-person panel — organized Saturday afternoon at the Clayton municipal arena by the International Water Levels Coalition as part of the Clayton Spring Boat Show — to discuss the impact of low water levels on commerce in the Lake Ontario-Upper St. Lawrence River region.

During the discussion, some were more concerned about future management of the lake and river, which would determine how the Board of Control regulates water levels over the next several decades, than the near-future forecasts.

Much of the debate Saturday surrounded Plan Bv7, a water-regulation plan proposed by the International Joint Commission that could replace the now half-century-old Plan 1958DD.

On one side, many residents living on the southern shore of Lake Ontario — such as Sodus Bay and Rochester — fear that the new plan threatens their waterfront properties and infrastructure by increasing the chances of flooding.

“Above 247.3 feet, we have a flooding condition,” said Sodus Point Mayor Christopher Tertinek, adding that his village likely would “lose its pump station,” causing sewage to flow into the lake under Bv7.

Mr. Tertinek also argued that flood damage caused by a water-management plan would not be covered by insurance.

“Manmade floods are not covered by insurance,” he said.

Under 1958DD, which aims to maintain a four-foot water level range, 247.3 feet is the upper-limit and 243.3 feet is the lower-limit — and development along the lake’s waterfront for decades has relied on the assumption that these standards would remain the status quo.

IJC’s analysis of a century’s worth of water level data shows that the Bv7 plan would have allowed for a high of about 248.5 feet, some 2.4 inches higher than that allowed under 1958DD.

The proposed plan was designed in part to increase the range of fluctuation between seasons to dredge wetlands in the winter and restore biodiversity by mimicking a more “natural” water flow.

Under Bv7, the IJC is anticipating a 40 percent increase in Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River-area wetland meadows — a highly diverse plant community and vital habitat for fish and wildlife.

Boaters also seem to welcome the plan as Bv7 would allow for overall longer boating seasons — even though implementation of the plan carries the risk of lower summer low levels as well.

On average, Bv7 is expected to increase spring water levels by 2.4 inches, summer levels by 1.2 inches and fall levels by 2 inches.

Proponents of Bv7 also argue that the construction of the Robert H. Moses-Saunders Power Dam, Massena, and IJC’s “outdated” water-management plan have done enough damage to the region’s ecosystem over the past 50 years.

Supporters — such as Save the River, a Clayton-based environmental advocacy group — have been praising Bv7 as a “balanced” solution that finally takes into consideration environmental and recreational boating interests that were neglected under the original management plan.

“We’ve all been working on this a long time. There are a lot of difficulties. But I know one thing: we have a 50-year-old plan, and it’s not working,” said Stephanie G. Weiss, assistant director of Save the River, who participated in the panel discussion Saturday. “We need to be looking for leadership somewhere in our state or federal government to find a solution where the 12, 13 million people that live around this basin can expect fresh water, healthier rivers, healthy lakes and also expect not to be flooded.”

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