Friday, April 21, 2017

The Mighty Lake Ontario in 1973

With Niagara County declaring a state of emergency over rising water levels in Lake Ontario yesterday, reference was made to the 1973 lake levels that caused major damage along the lakeshore.  The current levels are very close to those heady days in the late winter of 1973. What happened back then? How much damage was done? Who out there remembers those days?

In January, 1973, the Army Corps of Engineers reported that Lake Ontario was 18 inches higher than normal and was expected to rise an additional nine inches over the course of a week. Lake front property owners were frightened and angry. Their investments were literally washing away. Some people blamed Ontario Hydro for diverting waters normally flowing into James Bay into the Great Lakes. It was estimated in the late 1950s that this diversion added over a cubic mile to the lakes each year.

Other experts pointed toward an extraordinarily heavy rain season in 1972 and more cloud cover over the area. The cloud cover would have inhibited some of the evaporation that would have helped to keep the lake waters consistent. In the meantime, the waters kept rising.

On February 1, 1973, Lake Ontario was measured at 246.01 feet, which meant the lake was nearly three feet higher than normal. The natural level of the lake is about 243 feet above sea level, although the lake is highly regulated to maintain shipping on the St Lawrence Seaway.  At the time of the February, 1973 measurement, the rising waters were expecting to cause $7 million in damages across the state.

In February, Richard Price, the officer in charge of the Coast Guard station at Fort Niagara, claimed that their station already had water in the basement, and that his docks would become unusable with another 18 inches of water, as was expected.  By the 10th of the month, the Army Corps of Engineers estimated the lake to peak at 248.43 feet, sometime in May or June.  There was concern by the DEC that an emergency release of Lake Ontario water would result in the flooding of Montreal, Quebec, and Massena.

Donald Finkle of the Youngstown Yacht Club claimed that if the lake rose another two feet, as expected, the club and nearby businesses “would float down the Niagara River.” G. Allan Burrows of Burt claimed “There’s almost nothing we can do…because our beaches were not allowed to form as they do during low water, which no longer occurs. Without our beaches, we can’t hold our walls or banks. They are our only protection.”

On February 15th, Lt. Governor, Malcolm Wilson requested federal aid to help with the coming disaster. “High levels combined with wind and storm conditions are posing the imminent threat of a major disaster along the New York shoreline of Lakes Ontario and Erie.” He sought funds for Chautauqua, Erie, Niagara, Orleans, Monroe, and Wayne counties.

On St. Patrick’s Day, 1973, the storm residents had been dreading arrived. Heavy northeast winds were initially forecast to strike between 40-50 miles per hour. Low spots along the lake were flooded. Olcott firemen reported that foundations of some cottages “are being washed away this morning and there’s nothing we can do about it.” Rains shifted to frozen rain and then to snow throughout the course of the day.

Over the course of the storm, volunteers filled 78,000 sandbags. Streets were flooded in Olcott. Some enterprising children rowed a boat down one of the roadways. Stone from the canal banks in Lockport were hauled to the end of Quaker Road to save a structure from falling into the lake.  Waves were estimated to be 10 to 20 feet high, with Olcott taking the brunt of the storm. Some property owners lost as much as ten feet of land along the lake.

Rod Hedley, president of Hedley Boat Company in Olcott, proposed sinking a ship or a lake freighter in Olcott Harbor for use as a break wall. At the same time, Assemblyman John Daly suggested that property owners have large rocks and boulders installed into gabion boxes at the shoreline to keep the land from being washed away. Governor Rockefeller asked for six counties along Lake Ontario be declared major disaster areas.

After the storm, the Army Corps of Engineers adjusted their high-water mark to 246.4, and expected that level to crest near the end of May. That would be a foot higher than the water level at the time of the March storm. However, according to International Great Lakes Datum collected on March 28th, the lake was at 247.06 feet. Weather forecasts showing nine days of rain and snow would push that level even higher.

Disaster again struck when another northeast wind pummeled the southern shore of Lake Ontario on April 9th. Fish Creek in Somerset was plugged by eroded land and junk, backing the creek waters up behind it. Typically 40 feet wide, the creek was nearly 400 feet wide because of the extra water. The piers outside of the harbor at Olcott were completely submerged during the storm. Rod Hedley continued to push for the sinking of a ship to prevent wave erosion in Olcott Harbor.

Interestingly, a large spoils pile of stone created during the construction of the New York Power Authority was utilized in protective work along the lake. One hundred thousand tons of stone were left behind by the construction, and the Power Authority let people take the stone for free to protect their homes along Lake Ontario.  Almost immediately, 35,000 tons was hauled off to stave off lake erosion.

An example of gabion boxes to prevent erosion.
Lake Ontario did reach its peak in May 1973. The average for the entire month was 248.46 feet, over two feet higher than the Army Corps of Engineers had predicted the month before. June did little to alleviate the worries on lake levels, averaging 248.36 for that month. Slowly, Ontario receded over the summer. By December, the waters had dropped to 244.85. However, by June 1974, it had crested 248 feet once again.

Since those high water days of 1973, the lake has mostly settled down to average between 244 and 245 feet, with some higher marks coming in the spring after the winter melt-off. January 1, 2017, the lake was measured at 244.38. Since then, the waters have risen to 247.42 feet. Some of the increase is due to normal winter melting. However, the levels are about 15 inches higher than the 100-year average.

How high will the waters go? Only time will tell. In the meantime, all eyes are on the shoreline and the skies. Does anyone remember living through those tumultuous times along the lake back in 1973? It would be interesting to hear your stories.

Craig Bacon utilized Union-Sun & Journal articles, Niagara Gazette articles, and data from the Army Corps of Engineers website as sources for this article.