Lake Ontario's water levels - too low,
too high, just right?
Westside News Inc. (NY)
Published July 31, 2005
An overflow crowd of nearly 250 Lake Ontario area residents
jammed the Greece Town Hall to listen to and speak about
proposed new plans to regulate water levels in the lake
by controlling outflow through the St. Lawrence River.
The Greece public hearing was just part of the Lake Ontario
- St. Lawrence River Study Board community forum for public
comment on developing a new regulatory plan to control
water levels. The study is a bi-national effort of over
150 experts from science, government, native communities,
businesses and special interest groups committed to public
understanding of the cause of the water level problems,
and adopting a modified plan to better meet the lakefront
It's taken nearly five years of technical studies and
public hearings in the United States and Canada to arrive
at the three proposed 'candidate' plans to be used in
making its report and recommendations to the International
Joint Commission which will make changes to the regulations
of water levels and outflows from Lake Ontario through
the St. Lawrence River.
Water levels in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River
have been a complicated and contentious issue ever since
the creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway which officially
opened in 1959. Before then, water levels were determined
by nature and the seasonal cycles of rain and evaporation.
Water from all five Great Lakes flows into Lake Ontario
and eventually out to sea through the St. Lawrence River.
It was only with the Seaway dams built to improve navigation
through the St. Lawrence that water levels became a serious
public policy issue because, for the first time, water
levels could be mechanically manipulated. The earliest
plan to artificially regulate and control water levels
was implemented in 1958.
Since then, conflicting interests have competed and sometimes
quarreled over too low or too high water levels. Commercial
navigation - shipping - wants high levels to maximize
the number of days ships can pass throughout the St. Lawrence
River. Hydro electric power producers prefer a constant
level in order to most efficiently produce electricity.
Fishermen and marina owners generally like high water
levels, lake front property owners want low levels so
as to protect their shorefront property from erosion and
damage, and environmentalists are concerned about either
too high, or too low levels that endanger wildlife and
the natural habitat that is the breeding ground for flora
The Water Level Study Group has been working to reconcile
these various interests and, having heard from anyone
wanting to plead one point of view or another, it is just
about ready to make its recommendations. Public comments
are still welcome until August 5.
Focus on Hamlin
The public policy issues concerning Lake Ontario water
level regulation can easily be understood by focusing
on three interest groups in nearby Hamlin.
While Hamlin does not demonstrate all the special interests
- there is no commercial shipping or hydroelectric industry
for instance - it does fairly represent the three most
prominent concerns of lakeshore communities.
Shorefront property owners
Recreation, boating and tourism
Hamlin's Town Supervisor Austin Warner knows that his
town's economic vitality is tied in a lot of ways to Lake
Ontario. He hears about the problems Hamlin taxpayers
have when high water levels threaten their waterfront
property or floods cause damage.
Warner says, "The lake brings a lot of folks to
town, to the park (Hamlin Beach State Park), marinas and
the yacht club and to fish." Development and new
residents building new homes is linked, too, to proximity
to the lake.
But he also knows, through participation in some of the
open meetings of the Water Level Study Group, that not
all lakefront communities share the same concerns.
"It was interesting," he says, "to listen
to people in Montreal where they were concerned more about
eels and flooding. It's always good when you have the
public involved and come out to comment."
Shorefront property owners
Hamlin's Craig Goodrich lives in a lakefront home that
has passed down from his great-grandfather who built what
was then just a cottage in which Goodrich spent many happy
summers growing up.
Goodrich remembers summers when the water level was so
low he would wade for yards and yards to get to waist
high water sufficient to swim in. And, he also remembers
spring time high water that flooded the deep sandy beach
In those days, prior to the creation of the St. Lawrence
Seaway, seasonal changes in water levels were a natural
occurrence. The first serious floods came, Goodrich recalls,
in the 1950s when the dams were being built at the beginning
of the St. Lawrence Seaway project. But, by far the most
serious, and damaging, high water event came in April
Storm-driven water then ripped through 70-feet of beach
frontage and lawn, battering down and then flooding the
whole front of his house, ruining the septic system and
causing thousands of dollars of property damage to the
inside and outside of his house. It took two years to
As part of their repairs, his family created a stone
break wall in an effort to tame raging waters in the future.
But Goodrich claims, by current Department of Environmental
Conservation regulations, he would not be able to do that
today. The DEC forbids reclamation of land lost due to
storm damage and high water erosion.
With the storms of '73, Goodrich says he lost 60-70 feet
of his shorefront property. Today, the DEC will not allow
a homeowner to reclaim lost land by building break walls,
or other means, he says, despite having deeds and photographs
to verify the changes.
"As the water level goes up, your sandy beach, frontage
and lot size shrinks dramatically," Goodrich says.
"At really high water levels you have ruination -
your land disappears overnight."
"Prior to the Seaway, water level fluctuation was
a natural occurrence. In the spring, water levels are
always high, but it was brief, the water flowed naturally
out through the St. Lawrence. Since the (construction
of) Seaway dams, every thing's changed."
Goodrich claims to speak for another 350 lakefront property
owners when he says, "I'd like to see the water level
stabilized as low as possible. People who use the lake
for recreation have just a short season. Homeowners are
concerned year round."
Recreation, boating and tourism
Patrick Pullinzi has been a charter boat captain based
on Sandy Creek in Hamlin since 1988. Since then, he says,
his business has steadily matured, part of the explosion
of the sport fishing tourism industry which blossomed
when efforts to clean up the lakes paid off, about twenty
Sport fishing is big business and a big contributor to
the economy of western Monroe and nearby Orleans counties.
Anglers come from all over the world for the chance to
hook a trophy steelhead, brown trout, or salmon.
Captain Pullinzi says he, like other fishing-based businesses,
prefer high water because it provides the ecosystem in
the lake and nearby creeks to produce more fish by maintaining
"High water allows me to be safe going out the channel
and I don't have to worry about dredging," Pullinzi
says. "My customers come to get fish," he says,
"so that's my focus."
"High water conditions in spring allows for better
inshore fishing - where the fish are in the spring. Lower
water levels leave large rocks and boulders exposed or
submerged under a few inches of water. It makes it dangerous,
if not impossible to approach the shore where the fish
Shallow water also exposes weeds, Pullinzi says, and
points out that Braddock Bay is a prime example where
in times of low water level, boats have a hard time getting
in and out of the bay.
"Overall," Pullinzi says, "higher water
levels are better for marinas, boaters and fishermen,
but as far as long term average, I think they (planners)
have been doing a pretty good job."
Ed Evans is a long time Hamlin resident and a former member
of Hamlin's conservation board. He is also an avid observer
of and proponent for Hamlin's natural environment. Evans
spearheaded the project to protect the Yanty Creek marshland
that was seriously eroded by high water levels over the
"High water levels have caused wetlands to shrink
or disappear in lowland areas such as Yanty Marsh and
Braddock Bay. In high ground area, during high water levels,
valuable wildlife habitat is eroded and can fall right
into the lake. Devil's Nose is a good example of that.
"The health of the lake is dependent on healthy
wetlands bordering it. Wetlands filter harmful chemicals
from the water flowing into the lake from farmland and
salt from roads - to say nothing of the wildlife habitat
"Since the Seaway construction in the mid 1950s,
water levels in the lake have been mechanically controlled.
What nature might once have done, is now artificially
done and it's not always nature's way."
The other, worthy concerns over water levels, aside,
Evans says, "Too high water turns the wetlands into
just more lake - destroying breeding grounds for fish,
nesting habitat for birds and flooding out native reptiles,
snakes and small mammals."
"On the other hand, prolonged low water conditions
can destroy wetlands too. Long periods of low water endanger
and ultimately destroy our wetlands by drying out and
eventually eliminating marshy areas that are the nurseries
For more information or to make a comment call (716)
879-4438. Or write to: Feedback, International Lake Ontario-St.
Lawrence River Study, 1776 Niagara Street, Buffalo, NY
14207. Or log on to: http://www.losl.org/contacts/contacts-e.html
where you can post comments on a feedback form.
The three final proposed plans
Plan A - Balanced Economic Plan
Designed to maximize overall economic benefits.
Provides some improvements for the environment, especially
on the Upper St. Lawrence River. Has losses to shoreline
property interests on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence
River. Provides recreational boating benefits.
Plan B - Balanced Environmental Plan
Designed to stimulate more natural conditions and provide
overall economic benefits. Improves the environment on
the Lake and Upper River. Has losses to shoreline property
interests with significant flooding potential around Montreal.
Has losses to recreational boating, especially on the
Plan D - Blended Benefits Plan
Designed for balanced performance, with overall economic
benefits and minimizes losses. Little change from 1958
plan, with some deviations for the environment. No overall
losses for shoreline property interests but some flooding
potential. Provides recreational boating benefits.