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It's Happened Before: The Long History Of Flooding On Lake Ontario

CANTON, NY (NCPR) - Flooding on Lake Ontario broke records this year. A lot of shoreline residents say they’ve never seen water levels anywhere near this year's, but in fact Lake Ontario has flooded many times before.

Records show a handful of years when water levels came within inches of where they are today.

Dwight Church went by the nickname Dippy. He was born in Canton in 1861 and worked as a photographer. Eventually Church bought his own plane and took pictures from the sky.

He flew all across the North Country.

“So he was kind of keeping tabs on Lake Ontario and the water was low during [the 1940s]," said Lamar Bliss, Church’s granddaughter. “And there was this amazingly wide beach and he said, ‘Great I have a built-in landing strip.'"

A beach to measure the water levels by

Bliss’s grandfather pulled the trigger and bought the place. That beach, or built-in landing strip as he saw it, came with a little summer cottage up on a bluff. A long row of windows looked out on the lake.

But just a few years later water levels on Lake Ontario went up. That amazingly wide beach? It was gone.

“He always felt that God had kind of played a cruel trick on him. He bought the cottage and then the landing strip disappeared," said Bliss.

But then few more years passed and water levels dropped again. The beach was back. That was until 1952. Lake Ontario surged, setting a new record high.

Bliss's mom remembers that time, the waves pounding against the shoreline.

“Parts of the bluff that she remembered playing on as a kid were gone," Bliss explained. "The big trees down in front— the grass had eroded back to where you were looking at some of the roots of the trees.”

Matching memories with historical records

Devastating floods like the ones Bliss and her family remember are on record.

Data collected by the International Joint Commission, which manages water levels on Lake Ontario, show a number of years when the water rose within 6 inches of where it is this year. First in 1952, again in 1973, and then in 1993.

“This area floods every 20 years or so. It flooded in ‘93, it flooded in ‘73. So regardless of whether it’s climate change or any plan, chances are there are going to be future floods," said Jane Corwin, the U.S. Section Chair of the IJC.

Correlation vs. causation in the case of flooding

But flooding in 2017 changed the way people saw that pattern. The IJC had just adopted a new management plan in January of that year. Months later, Lake Ontario swelled.

A video shot in 2017 from inside someone’s home in Rochester shows massive waves slamming into their deck.

“Look at that—right outside our back you’ve got white caps, waves just smashing. Look at this one about to come in over here. It’s crazy.”

This year it happened again. People are outraged about the damage to their homes and docks, and politicians like Gov. Andrew Cuomo, are blaming the flooding on the IJC.

“I don’t mean to cast aspersion on the IJC," Cuomo said during a recent visit to Lake Ontario, "but their job is to manage the flow and level of water and when you have flooding, by definition the IJC has not appropriately managed the water. Period.”

The role of the weather

IJC chairwoman Jane Corwin said they’re doing everything they can. Corwin says it was extreme weather and not the IJC’s new management plan that caused the flooding. All five Great Lakes are at or near record highs. All that water drains into Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.

"When you look at the amount of water coming into the system from the other lakes, as well as precipitation, clearly that’s not from [Plan 2014]. That’s from the weather," she said.

Andrew Gronewold is an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan's School for Environment and Sustainability. He studies water levels on the Great Lakes and says data from the 1950s, '70s, '90s and now all show a clear connection between wet weather and high water.

"Throughout much of that time period," said Gronewold, "it was changes in precipitation that drove these water level extremes."

And things are changing in the Great Lakes region, which Gronewold said is because of climate change.

"Over the past ten to twenty years evaporation rates have increased from the lakes and now we have sort of this tug-of-war between precipitation, which contributes water to the lakes and evaporation, which of course takes water away from the lakes," he said.

What the history of Lake Ontario can tell us that water levels will continue to fluctuate a lot.

"It’s very unlikely that we’re going to ever be in a long, long, long term period of low water levels," said Gronewold, "or a long, long, long term period of high water levels.”

Rather, levels will keep rising and falling, likely setting new records.

More shoreline homes means more homes at risk

There is one big change along the shore of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River — development. More people have built homes or seasonal cottages on the water’s edge.

When Dwight "Dippy" Church bought his lakeside cottage in the 1940s there wasn’t much around.

“It was dune grass, it was beach, that was it," explained Church's granddaughter, Lamar Bliss. "And then in the last 20 years the number of people that have moved in is unreal.”

Bliss says those people have no memory of the longer term cycles that shape the shoreline. Without that, they’ve turned to the IJC.

“I think the thing that really frustrates me is how people are always looking for somebody to blame because, I don’t know, it makes them feel better or something," she said.

"People just love to think that they’re in control," Bliss added, with a laugh.

But they’re not and really, neither is the IJC. The commission can tweak water levels, but ultimately it’s mother nature that controls levels on Lake Ontario.