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Great Lakes Article:

Managing lake calls for level of finesse


By Corydon Ireland
Democrat and Chronicle

(June 9, 2002) — Don Ras of Kendall, Orleans County, has a next-door neighbor that's stealing his land -- 20 feet out of the back yard so far.

The neighbor isn't easy to deal with, being frequently stormy, bigger than Vermont, up to 800 feet deep and more than 10,000 years old.

Lake Ontario, including the bit of it lapping at Ras' survey stakes, is marked this spring by high water levels -- just a shade under the legal maximum of 247.3 feet above sea level, set decades ago by a U.S.-Canadian agreement.

The high water is re-energizing a binational debate on how, when and for what interest group water levels should be manipulated by a 40-year-old dam on the St. Lawrence River.

Ontario is one of two Great Lakes in which water levels are partly controlled by man-made machinery. The other is Lake Superior, where water levels this spring are 7 inches below the long-term average.

On Lake Ontario -- the second smallest and the second deepest of the five Great Lakes -- current water levels are at 247.1 feet above sea level. That's about 11 inches above the 160-year historical average and almost 4 feet above the 243.3-foot minimum.

Of the other lakes, only Erie is at or above its average this spring.

On Lake Ontario, "most times it's been like manslaughter when they keep it too high," said Ras, 60, a shoreline resident of Kendall since 1970. "This year, it's murder."

Experts on the hydrology of the five Great Lakes, and the officials that have their hands on the dam controls, this month repeat a water-levels mantra: No matter how high or low the levels are, someone is going to be unhappy.

In years marked by high water in spring and summer -- the seasons when water levels are highest -- recreational boaters and commercial shippers are pleased.

In low-water years, coastline homeowners -- called "riparian" homeowners -- do the jig on beaches that get wider and on docks that go unpunished in storms.

"It's very hard to keep everyone happy -- but we try to balance the discomfort," said Frank Sciremammano Jr., an engineering professor at Rochester Institute of Technology and the only local member of the 10-member International St. Lawrence River Board of Control.

That's the agency, created in 1959, that decides how much water to hold back on Lake Ontario every fall and spring.

Last fall, the board held back 7 centimeters (about 2.7 inches) of water in Lake Ontario, by reducing the amount of water allowed over a dam across the St. Lawrence River near Massena, St. Lawrence County.

"That was in anticipation of drought conditions," which had marked the lakes for the past two years, said Sciremammano. "Then we got hit with fairly unusual precipitation in April and May. (The water) got much higher than we wanted."

In mid-May, board members voted to increase the dam outflow by 150 cubic meters (196 cubic yards) per second. That's enough to fill about 20 dump trucks with water.

Last week, the board increased it by the same amount -- an unusual step designed to hasten drainage from the 10,000-square-mile lake.

But that doesn't happen quickly, according to an established rule of thumb for Lake Ontario: A flow of 300 cubic meters at the dam for one week drains off just 1 centimeter of water. Lakewide, that's less than four-tenths of an inch.

And you can't just open the dam's spigot all the way, said Sciremammano, who did his doctoral thesis on Lake Ontario water regulation: "We could flood Montreal," the Canadian port city downstream from the control dam.

In the previous two years, record-low water levels caused their own pains, he said. Recreational boaters moored in shallow water; commercial shippers reduced tonnage to float high enough to get through shipping channels; and low water exposed at least one industrial water intake, on the St. Lawrence.

"The last few years, they've had a problem," said Sciremammano. "This year, lake (homeowners) are getting it."

The solution is elusive, he said. "I wish I had a magic (water) level."

Tom Bender, an engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Buffalo, doesn't have any magic to offer. But he is U.S. chairman for a binational "coastal zone technical work group" investigating the effect of Lake Ontario water levels on erosion and shoreline flooding.

It's one of seven panels of experts that early in 2001 started a five-year "study board" on Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River water levels issues, commissioned by the International Joint Commission, a U.S.-Canadian Great Lakes advisory group. Other panels will look at the effects of water levels on the environment, tourism, shipping, recreational boating, water intakes and hydropower.

The coastal zone panel -- closely watched by shoreline residents like Ras -- will by August have a computer model developed that can simulate the effects of current and proposed water control plans on erosion and flooding. They're busy loading the program with massive amounts of historical data on weather patterns, wind, wave height, shoreline geology and other factors.

The result will be what the corps calls a "shared vision model" that will give boaters, riparian landowners and others affected by lake levels a way of predicting degrees of harm and happiness.

"There will be one umbrella (computer) model at the end of this," said Bender. And that will give experts a way of testing a water-control plan to replace the one largely devised in 1959.

"But the shoreline is a very dynamic zone and is not easily understood," he said. And the lake -- unlike a groomed lawn or backyard garden, "was never intended to be a stable (natural) feature."

No matter what future water-level controls are, he said, "there will be winners and losers."

In the meantime, with the wind-whipped high-water lake eroding his back yard, Ras gets shore-protecting rocks delivered by the ton. But all around him, he said, there are lakeshore residents who are financially strapped by having to add protective rip-rap, docks and breakwalls.

"I see people who should be buying shoes for their kids," said Ras, a retiree. "Instead, they're buying rocks."


More information
Have questions, comments or concerns about Lake Ontario water levels? Call Arleen Kreusch at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who is gathering information for the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Study Board: (716) 879-4438.
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