Lake Ontario water levels are the highest they’ve been since the last record high in 1973 and nearly three feet higher than the average 246 feet, causing widespread flooding and erosion across the shoreline.
Of the five Great Lakes, Lake Ontario has the lowest surface elevation. Each of the other four lakes systematically drain into one another through a series of rivers, and since Lake Ontario is the last lake in the series, it is the last to collect water before it drains into the Atlantic Ocean by way of the St. Lawrence River.
The Corps of Engineers has closely monitored the Great Lakes water levels for the last century, and the organization’s data has assisted local, state and federal government agencies prepare for flood events ever since. The last major flood event involving Lake Ontario was in the mid-1970s. Water levels had been consistently rising since the mid-1960s up through 1972, and it was forecasted that significant flooding would occur.
In December 1972, the State of New York was notified that a flood prevention program, called “Operation Foresight” was authorized under Public Law 84-99. The program was extensive, with initial studies performed in approximately 400 communities throughout Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania and New York. The Corps of Engineers had contractors install flood prevention measures in 59 communities, while 141 communities used government materials in “Self-Help” protection projects.
All work was completed by early 1974 at the total cost of $27 million (about $152 million in 2017 dollars, using the Engineering News Records Construction Cost Index). The Corps of Engineers estimated a savings of $132 million in damage, which equates to about $745 million in today’s dollars. For New York State specifically, dollars saved in damage would be the equivalent to nearly $19 million today.
At the time, ten construction contracts were awarded, and approximately 15,000 feet of temporary dikes and levees were provided in 15 communities.
“The rising Great Lakes water levels in the 1970s were gradual and involved multiple lakes,” said Deborah Lewandowski, Corps of Engineers Emergency Management Specialist, Buffalo District. “In the seventies, the lakes were rising gradually over a few years so there was time for communities to prepare.”
The law allows for the Corps of Engineers to provide “advance assistance”, which can be requested in order to prevent or reduce damages when there is an imminent threat of unusual flooding. Advance measures are temporary projects put in place before a flooding event.
“Although sandbags were utilized for flood protection during Operation Foresight, rock-filled wire structures called gabion baskets were also very popular and were used extensively throughout the Great Lakes as they provided greater protection from wave action and lasted much longer,” said Robert Remmers, Buffalo District Chief of Operations and Technical Support Section Levee Program Safety Program Manager. “Due to the significant amount of effort and material involved in constructing gabion baskets, the Corps hired contractors to perform this work.”
“This year was different. In 2017, we didn’t have that warning period. There was a lot of precipitation in April and we had already had a lot of snow in late March. Lake Ontario rose quickly, with little warning,” Lewandowski said.
In 2017, Lake Ontario water levels are again at record highs. Because of the interconnectedness of the Great Lakes, forecasters can model the likelihood of flooding by seeing how each lake interacts with another. Predictive models are based on flow rates and how high one lake is in conjunction with another. The substantial precipitation focused in that region caused the quick rise, even when the other lakes did not demonstrate the same level of increases.
Engineering Regulation 500-1-1, the “Emergency Employment of Army and Other Resources, Natural Disaster Procedures”, provides the policy guidance for the Corps of Engineers to be called upon to assist with temporary measures only when the extent of the work would be beyond the capability of local and state governments.
Just like in 1973, the Corps of Engineers is still authorized to provide flood assistance under Public Law 84-99. As part of Emergency Operations, the Corps of Engineers may provide direct assistance and technical assistance. Direct assistance involves providing sandbags, pumps, and other flood fight materials, while technical assistance involves providing advice on flood fighting methods and techniques, inundation mapping, flood modeling and historical data.
“We are engaged with the local community providing both direct and technical assistance,” said Lt. Col. Adam Czekanski, Corps of Engineers, Buffalo District Commander. “As soon as we received the official request for assistance, we sent out teams of specialists who have been assisting community members with the best techniques for mitigating flooding. They have been working hard to help these communities deal with difficult circumstances.”