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Rising Lake Ontario water levels under watch, but no immediate threat

A tree hangs over the water at the edge of a lake.
Tarryn Mento
Rocks line the shore of Lake Ontario in the city of Oswego.

State water officials are keeping an eye on the Lake Ontario shoreline as the water is higher but still below flooding levels.

The lake is seeing more water flow in from seasonal snowmelt up north, and less water flow out a dam on the New York-Canadian water border.

Sean Mahar, executive deputy commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. He says the dam slowed down the rate of water passing over it because Montreal on the other side was seeing higher water levels too.

"As flood conditions were occurring there, they had to adjust and alternate the water flows," Mahar said.

Operators reduced how much they let in to keep the city shoreline from rising.

"Which then causes the water levels on Lake Ontario to rise," Mahar said.

He Mahar said flood prone areas around the lake like near Rochester aren’t in immediate danger. The lake is at about 247 feet. Flooding occurs at 248 feet, but Mahar said rising even just an inch would require a significant water increase. Still, he said the department has sandbags and other flood diversion resources ready just in case.

“Lake Ontario is massive, and you get a lot of wave action. If you get a storm from the north that will drive water and wave action towards these flood prone areas— right now we don't see that risk, but that's why we're monitoring," Mahar said.

The governor announced that monitoring earlier this week as a protective step. The lake reached a record-high 249 feet in 2019 causing damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure.

The state later invested in more than 130 projects to better protect Ontario and nearby shorelines from flooding. At least 55 are complete, including a $1.1 million floodwall to protect the Rochester-area community of Greece.

Tarryn Mento is an award-winning digital, audio and video journalist with experience reporting from Arizona, Southern California, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic. Tarryn produces in-depth and investigative content for WAER while overseeing the station's student reporter experience. She is also an adjunct professor at Syracuse University.