Push to get water out of Lake Ontario may extend into April

Push to get water out of Lake Ontario may extend into April
The International Joint Commission controls the flow of water through dams in Massena. (Source: WWNY)

WATERTOWN, N.Y. (WWNY) - The push to get as much water as possible out of Lake Ontario may extend to mid-April and affect shipping on the St. Lawrence Seaway.

In a statement late Thursday, the International Joint Commission (IJC) - which regulates water levels on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River - notes that if water levels on the lake require “extraordinary action" to lower them, they’ll “maximize outflows from Lake Ontario over the period April 1 to April 15.”

Right now, the Seaway is scheduled to open April 1.

The statement from the International Joint Commission is very cautiously worded; it never mentions delaying the shipping season past April 1. But it does note that if it continues to release the maximum amount of water until April 15, “all interested parties would be provided with advance notice of any outflow increases that might create unsafe conditions for commercial navigation."

The IJC says the odds of having to extend into April are “currently relatively low but will be better known closer to the end of March.”

A group representing shippers on the Seaway, the Chamber of Marine Commerce, has said that each week of delay in shipping will cost up to $193 million.

Right now, Lake Ontario is about a foot and a half higher than normal for this time of year, and record amounts of water are being pushed out through the Moses-Saunders Dam in Massena. The plan of the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board (that’s the group which actually carries out the decisions of the International Joint Commission, and which also has a say in how much water is to be released) is to push out the maximum amount of water it can through the month of March.

They’re trying to get the level of Lake Ontario down so that it doesn’t flood again, as it did in 2019 and 2017.

That means the Seaway, if it opens April 1, is opening just a little later than it did in 2019, and somewhat later - 12 days - than it usually does.

Full statement of the International Joint Commission

The International Joint Commission (IJC) announced today that it supports the strategy of its International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board (Board) to set maximum Lake Ontario outflows until March 31, before the start of the navigation season on April 1.

If, at the end of March, Lake Ontario water levels and inflows to the lake indicate the need for extraordinary action, and if conditions in the St. Lawrence River provide an opportunity for increased outflows, the IJC has directed the Board to maximize outflows from Lake Ontario over the period April 1 to April 15. Under such conditions, all interested parties would be provided with advance notice of any outflow increases that might create unsafe conditions for commercial navigation.

The IJC notes that it is working with the governments of Canada and the United States and all interests, including the Seaway, with the intent of releasing as much water as possible from Lake Ontario as conditions allow. IJC Commissioners commend the Seaway corporations for the collaborative efforts that resulted in the maximum outflow strategy through March 31.

The IJC recognizes that the potential Lake Ontario outflow strategy for April 1 to April 15 is designed as a response to unforeseen and exceptional conditions on Lake Ontario that would require extraordinary action. Implementation of the strategy could be affected by such factors as unfavorable ice conditions in the St. Lawrence River or downstream flooding.

The probability that the Board would have to resort to such action is currently relatively low but will be better known closer to the end of March.

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