Lake Ontario water levels: “It’s time to get serious”

Tony David interview

WATERTOWN, N.Y. (WWNY) - There is at least a 50 percent chance there will be another “high water event” on Lake Ontario this spring and summer.

That’s according to Tony David, from the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board, which is responsible, along with the International Joint Commission, for regulating water levels on the lake and the St. Lawrence River.

David’s warning came as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers forecasted record high water levels to continue in 2020 on all the Great Lakes. (David is also the Director of the Environmental Division of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe.)

In a conversation with 7 News reporter Scott Atkinson, David talked about the uncertainties of predicting what happens in the coming months; what communities should be doing now; and what the high water years of 2017 and 2019 (and maybe 2020) can teach us about development along the lake and river.

To hear an extended version of the interview - lightly edited - click on the picture above this post, or read the transcript below.

Tony: “Right now there is a greater than 50 percent chance that the Lake Ontario peak later this summer will be what we call a high water event. That’s about 247.7 feet. Right now our forecast says there’s about a 50 percent chance that we’ll be there or higher this year. So that means all the communities and municipalities around the basin really should start to make preparations for a high water event later this year.”

Scott: “Do you have a qualitative sense of what that high water event will be like - how long lasting it will be, how much worse it will be, or the same or better it’ll be than 2019 or 2017?”

Tony: “All of that will depend on specific events that will happen over the next weeks and months, and thos events are impossible to predict. So right now, the 50 percent forecast is looking at the 247.7 feet. On the higher end, we could see levels eclipsing 2019. If conditions improve and we got through a dry spell, we could actually fall below that 50 percent forecast, but at this point we’re not really expecting to have any drier weather that would improve the forecast for 2020.”

Scott: “This does not sound optimistic.”

Tony: “Well, it’s time to get serious about what the conditions are in the upper Great Lakes. And conditions within the Lake Ontario basin continue to ber very wet, and conditions below, the lower St. Lawrence, are also pretty wet as well. I think it’s time to be realistic about what these conditions mean and it’s time to start planning for what will probably end up being another high water event on Lake Ontario.”

Scott: “Tony, is this the new normal?”

Tony: “Well, that’s hard to say. Within the Lake Ontario system, we go through periods of very wet weather. We’ve never had this much water coming into the system before. In terms of water regulations, we’ve never been putting more water from the system, so it’s hard to say if this is the new normal but this is certainly a very wet cycle. We’re all expecting it to end at some point, we just don’t know when. Sometime in the future we’ll go through a really dry cycle. That’s just the way things are in this system.”

Scott: “Let me ask you this: as you see the data as it’s coming in, and you see what’s happened over the last few years, does it frighten you?”

Tony: “Well, I think what we’re seeing is analagous to wet weather patterns we’ve had in the past. We’ve dealt with high water events in the 50s and the 70s and the 90s. So these events really illustrate the vulnerability with which we do coastal development on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. When conditions are average, everything seems great - but it gives us a sense of complacency about what those actual risks are. Right now, we’re seeing that develop in real time. If we take a step back and take a look at the system where we have these pattern of damages, wee should really be taking a harder look at changing the behavior of how we do coastal development within the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River.”

Scott: “And by that do you mean, don’t develop as much?”

Tony: “Well, we need to improve the standards for how we develop the shorelines, and we need to take a flood plains management perspective and ask questions about whether or not development should even be taking place in those locations, because we keep going through these things every 20 years or so. It’s really hard on communities and it’s a big expense for the taxpayers. You know, New Yorkers, we’re all paying for the response, $100 million in 2017, $300 million in 2019. At some point we need to ask ourselves ‘Is this money being spent as well as it should be?’ These are really hard questions, and the board (International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board) and the IJC (International Joint Commission) really don’t have any jurisdiction or any authority to influence those decisions but the people of the state of New York really need to take a hard look at these practices and say ‘Well, can we do better?’ And I think the answer is, yes we can.”

Copyright 2020 WWNY. All rights reserved.