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
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
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
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
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
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
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."
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.