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International St. Lawrence River Control Board lowers water levels...but how low will they go?

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This spring's rain has left water levels on Lake Ontario well above normal--higher than the International St Lawrence River Board of Control is comfortable with.

To fix the problem, the board earlier this month started letting more water out at the Moses-Saunders dam in Massena. That means some areas of the St. Lawrence will be seeing low water levels. That has some worried about the boating season.

Nora Flaherty has more.

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The high water levels on Lake Ontario aren’t just something that happened by accident.

Jennifer Caddick, executive director of the organization “Save the River,” says when there’s a danger of flooding, storing water in the lake is par for the course: "The board of control plan, as it's currently written, treats the upper St. Lawrence as a big bathtub… It’s just a storage space a lot of the time, and that’s how we were used this spring—we were just a place to put it."

The Control board is picky for a reason; it has to make sure water levels on Lake Ontario and the upper St. Lawrence stay consistent, so they can be depended on to provide water and power.

It also uses the dam to keep river communities safe. There was a real danger this spring that Montreal would flood so the board limited how much water could pass through the dam, keeping water levels high.

Now they’re letting the water drop. John Kangis, U.S. secretary for the board of control, says the board’s been hearing a lot of complaints about the high levels. "Homes along Lake Ontario that have had waves splashing up and causing damage. Also reports that people who have fixed docks have had their docks inundated. Also high ship wakes on the St. Lawrence river," Kangis said. "So those are the high-water issues we’ve been dealing with lately."

When the board releases more water through the dam, or “maximizes discharge," water levels in areas near the dam change dramatically. That’s especially true for the Lake St. Lawrence area that runs from below Ogdensburg down to the Massena-Cornwall area, where the dam is.

"The one area that’s going to be really affected is the lake St. Lawrence area," said Dalton Foster, one of the founders of the international water levels coalition, a group that advocates for a new water regulation plan on the St. Lawrence. "When you reduce the levels in lake Ontario, you need to reduce the levels in Lake St. Lawrence 15 times as much, and if they tried to bring it down like 10 inches, you’re practically draining Lake St. Lawrence." 

Low water levels on lake Saint Lawrence could have a big impact there, Foster said: "If they moderate it and cut it back, things will be acceptable, but if they don’t people will be pulling their boats out, probably in July." 

The control board is only planning to lower water levels about another inch, so unless it’s a very dry summer or the board decides to continue releasing water, the lake may not go quite as low as Foster fears.

The control board’s John Kangis points out there’s no way of knowing if a hurricane or extremely dry weather will hit the area this summer. Until weather happens, it’s pretty hard to plan water management. "We have to be prepared for either extreme, but optimistically we’ll have a good boating and recreation season on lake Ontario this summer," Kangis said. 

Kangis said he hopes the board’s actions will keep the lake at a comfortable level without affecting areas like Lake St. Lawrence too much but that people who live on the lakefront and by the river should be prepared to deal with a range of water levels.


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