OLCOTT, N.Y. (WIVB) – As inmates from the Niagara County Jail filled sandbags in Olcott, Niagara and Orleans counties remain under a state of emergency because of rising water levels on Lake Ontario. But officials say don’t blame Mother Nature entirely for this emergency.
Lake Ontario is a foot higher than normal, and some flooding has occurred, but several local officials say this is something that did not have to happen.
Despite a wall of sandbags, a house at the end of Jackson Street, in Olcott has been flooded, but a highway crew has started to build up a sand and sandbag dike to keep the flooding to a minimum.
Lake Ontario is rising and scientists say it won’t crest until about May 14. Newfane Town Supervisor Tim Horanburg has said some residents in low lying areas might have to evacuate, “Once we lose our sewers in this area, and our infrastructure, the people are going to have to leave.”
Horanburg and other long-time residents say this is the highest they have seen Lake Ontario in more than 40 years, going back to 1973. But a number of elected officials claim a bi-national agency, made up of Americans and Canadians, called the International Joint Commission could be turning this into a man-made disaster.
Niagara County Legislator John Syracuse said the emergency is “man made”, “It is a disaster waiting to happen. We have been calling on this for the last three to four years of what will happen.”
Syracuse is referring to the Joint Commission’s new approach to regulating the depth of Lake Ontario. Under what is called Plan 2014, which was signed last year, as Lake Ontario rises the IJT allows lake levels to go higher than previously–before opening the floodgates at the east end of the lake as it flows into the St. Lawrence River.
Anthony McKenna participated in the research, on behalf of Niagara County, that led to Plan 2014, which he believes was biased against the New York shoreline communities, “They are not doing anything right now, and of course part of that problem is that they cannot release now, because they will flood out Montreal. They should have done it earlier.”
A spokesman for the International Joint Commission said the Montreal area is also facing evacuation due to high water. Frank Bevacqua said the old plan might not have made much difference in Niagara County’s efforts to keep Lake Ontario at bay, because of above average rainfall, throughout the Lake Ontario basin.
“Down in the lower St. Lawrence River area, it has been 150% above average. So they have gotten more rainfall, but it is severe conditions on the lake and downstream as well.”
This may be just the beginning of flooding troubles on both sides of the border. Scientists are predicting Lake Ontario will continue to rise at least another foot over the next 3 to 4 weeks, and if there is a strong northwesterly wind, flooding would likely get a lot worse.