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Extreme Conditions and Challenges During High Water Levels on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River

Arun Heer
IJC Great Lakes Adaptive Management Committee
pumping and sandbagging to lessen flooding
US Army National Guard members deploy a water-filled cofferdam by Sodus Point, New York, to help control Lake Ontario floodwaters
US Army National Guard members deploy a water-filled cofferdam by Sodus Point, New York, to help control Lake Ontario floodwaters. Credit: US Army National Guard

There has been much speculation and many theories put forth as to what factors contributed to the high-water crisis on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River this year, from rain to snow, water levels and regulation Plan 2014.

The truth is there were many factors. But as a colleague recently summed up, the main ones were “Rain, rain, and more rain!”

Of course, this is an over-simplification, but in retrospect, the high water levels stemmed mainly from four rain-related factors: an unusual mild and wet winter, above-normal inflows from the upper Great Lakes, a record-setting spring freshet in the Ottawa River basin, and heavy rainfalls across the Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River system that have continued through spring and early summer.

This unprecedented combination of climate conditions presented the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board with a most difficult challenge. Let’s take a closer look at how things unfolded during the first half of 2017, including the factors leading to the record-high levels and how the board has taken into consideration these exceptional conditions in its decision making.

Watershed basin map
Watershed basin map with outlet locations. Credit: Environment & Climate Change Canada

2017 Brings New Plan

On Dec. 8, 2016, the International Joint Commission issued a Supplementary Order, replacing Plan 1958-D and adopting Plan 2014 as the new regulation plan effective Jan. 7, 2017. Plan 2014 prescribes a new set of rules that the board must ordinarily follow in setting the outflows from Lake Ontario through the St. Lawrence River, which are controlled at the Moses-Saunders generating station at Cornwall, Ontario and Massena, New York.

At the time Plan 2014 was implemented, Lake Ontario’s water level was 6 centimeters or 2.4 inches below its long-term (1918-2016) average for that time of year, and at about the same level as each of the past two years. The upper Great Lakes, including Lake Erie, which supplies about 85 percent of the total inflow of water to Lake Ontario via the Niagara River and Welland Canal, were somewhat above average, but not significantly so and also at similar levels to recent years. Finally, at the start of January, ice was already forming on the St. Lawrence River in the Beauharnois Canal (located between Moses-Saunders and the city of Montreal further downstream on the St. Lawrence). The board had already reduced outflows from Lake Ontario to the rate required for ice formation, which applied under the old and new regulation plans, allowing a seamless transition.

A Mild and Wet Winter Season (January to March)

When ice starts forming at critical locations in the St. Lawrence River, outflows must be temporarily reduced to ensure the formation of a safe and stable ice cover. Doing so reduces the risk that the ice cover will collapse or that the fast-moving water will generate what’s known as frazil ice (ice crystals suspended in water that is too turbulent to freeze solid), possibly resulting in an ice jam. Such an occurrence would significantly reduce outflows, causing immediate flooding upstream, and rapidly declining levels downstream. Once a stable ice cover has formed, the board can safely increase outflows.

By Jan. 17, the Beauharnois Canal was half-covered with ice and the unusual winter weather began. Unseasonably mild temperatures combined with a number of heavy precipitation events in January caused much of the precipitation to fall as rain, particularly in the more southerly parts of the basin. Much of the snow that fell also melted with the mild weather, running off into local streams and tributaries, and making its way to Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.

Notably, daily high temperatures were above freezing for about a week straight from Jan. 16-23. With an extensive, prolonged thaw under way, the ice that had formed in the Beauharnois Canal began to disappear, and eventually receded to the point that Lake Ontario outflow was safely increased back to values previously passed during the open-water season. But by Jan. 25, following another period of colder weather, ice had started forming again and the flow was reduced again on Jan. 28. But mild weather returned, and so flow was again increased on Jan. 31.

This cycle of freezing and thawing continued in February, and flows were adjusted six times that month in response to fluctuating temperatures and ice conditions. A few days of typically cold winter weather at the start of February were followed by several days of milder, but below freezing temperatures, allowing ice to form slowly. However, the last half of the month was exceptionally warm: daily high temperatures recorded at Dorval, Quebec, near Beauharnois, were above freezing for 13 straight days from Feb. 18 through March 2 and reached 14.5 Celsius (58 Fahrenheit) on Feb. 25. The ice cover was gone by Feb. 26, and this permitted the board to increase the flow several times by month’s end.

At the same time, water levels throughout the system began to increase gradually as snowmelt and wet weather continued. Lake Ontario rose significantly more than normal in February, as inflows were above average and outflows were restricted by fluctuating ice conditions. St. Lawrence River levels near Montreal also gradually edged upwards until suddenly shooting above average on Feb. 26 as snowmelt combined with rare February thunderstorms and rainfall.

Normally, by February, a solid ice cover has formed on the St. Lawrence River and remains in place, while occasionally, milder temperatures cause the ice cover to melt during this month. Either condition allows flows to be safely increased thereafter. At no time in recorded history had ice begun forming in March, and the board had no reason to believe this year would be any different. But between March 4 and March 30, substantial ice cover formed and disappeared twice in the Beauharnois Canal during what were two of the coldest stretches of weather seen all winter. As a result, Lake Ontario outflows varied considerably, being reduced as ice formed during a good part of the first half of the month, and then increased four times by a total of 18 percent from March 17- 22. Once increased, flows remained relatively stable for the rest of March.

Overall, the winter saw five periods of ice formation punctuated with thaw cycles in between, the most ever seen in the St. Lawrence River.

While highly variable ice conditions restricted outflows at times, the main driver of rising water levels throughout the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River system during the first three months of 2017 was the above-normal amount of water the basin received. This water came from precipitation, snowmelt and runoff from within the basin, and above-average and increasing inflows from Lake Erie, which also saw wet conditions and generally rising water levels throughout this period. From January through March, the net total water supply (i.e., total inflow) to Lake Ontario was above average, and the 12th highest for this three-month period since records begin in 1900. At the end of March, water levels were where they were in 2016, and the mid-March 90-day forecasts from Canada and the US suggested average precipitation was expected in April, May and June.

Record Ottawa River freshet (April and May)

The unusual wet winter transitioned quickly to an exceptionally wet spring. Water levels on Lake St. Louis, located on the St. Lawrence River just upstream of Montreal, generally rose quickly throughout the first three weeks of April following a significant thaw event marked by thunderstorms and rainfall. This event, while relatively large, was not entirely unusual; the Ottawa River enters the St. Lawrence at this location and at this time of year snowmelt and rainfall tend to rapidly increase flows out of this large basin. Nonetheless, the peak flow of 6,877 cubic meters per second (242,900 cubic feet per second) on April 20 was a record for this date, and the highest Ottawa River flow since 1998.

From April 1-5, the Plan 2014 rule curve flow was followed. Thereafter, a series of rainstorms passed through the region, with areas to the north and east of Lake Ontario and into the Ottawa and St. Lawrence River basins being particularly hard-hit. This led to two dozen adjustments to Lake Ontario outflows during the month of April in response to the rapidly rising and highly variable Ottawa River and local tributary flows.

These adjustments were done in accordance with the Plan 2014 “F-limit,” which was designed to mimic the board’s decision making strategies under the previous regulation plan, Plan 1958-D, during high-water events in the 1990s (whereby flooding and erosion risks and impacts upstream on Lake Ontario and in the 1000 Islands were balanced with those downstream from Lake St. Louis through Lake St. Peter). During periods of wet spring conditions, as levels on Lake Ontario reach higher and more critical values, this multi-tiered rule also allows increased levels downstream at Lake St. Louis, which acts as somewhat of a barometer for other areas downstream, and Lake Ontario outflows are adjusted accordingly. The total inflow to Lake Ontario during the month of April was the second highest recorded since 1900.

While the wet weather continued, Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River levels continued to rise, reaching record high levels and resulting in flooding and related impacts throughout the system. Lake Ontario’s end-of-week level reached what is known as the criterion H14 upper trigger level on April 28. Criterion H14 is another rule, again part of Plan 2014, that when exceeded, authorizes the board to follow an alternative strategy and release outflows to provide all possible relief to riparians living along the shorelines of the entire system. There are four upper trigger levels per month (48 per year) and these thresholds can be expected to be exceeded 2 percent of the time, by definition, given historical water supplies. However, at the time, given the exceptional conditions, the board consensus was that the best way to balance the effects of water levels upstream and downstream and minimize flood and erosion impacts to the extent possible throughout the system was to continue to follow the “F-limit” of Plan 2014. As a result, deviations from the plan were not employed.

Unfortunately, as conditions remained critical, the wet weather only worsened in May. The total inflow to Lake Ontario during the month was the highest recorded since 1900. The month began with a so-called “perfect storm.” There were two extremely large and slow-moving storm systems that passed through the region, the first on April 30 and the second from May 4-8. These storms combined to dump a minimum of 75 millimeters or 3 inches of rain over most of the Lake Ontario, Ottawa and St. Lawrence River basins, while some areas around Lake Ontario received twice that amount. Heavy rain also fell upstream of Lake Ontario on Lake Erie, where water levels also were rising and inflows to Lake Ontario increased to well above average values.

As a result, during the first third of May, water flowed into Lake Ontario at record-high rates and about 25 percent higher than any release the board can physically pass down the river. At the same time, the daily mean Ottawa River outflow (at Carillon Dam) peaked at 8,862 m3/s (313,000 cfs) on May 8 – a new all‐time record maximum, which resulted in significant flooding in many parts of the Ottawa River basin, in the Montreal area and in many areas of the St. Lawrence further downstream.

In response, outflows from Lake Ontario were reduced quickly and significantly over the first week of May to moderate the sharp rise in St. Lawrence River levels near Montreal. As Ottawa River flows subsided, the Lake Ontario outflow was increased rapidly, rising from a low of 6,200 m3/s (219,000 cfs) on May 7 to a high of 10,200 m3/s (360,200 cfs) on May 24 (i.e., raised 35 percent in 17 days). In so doing, the board continued to balance upstream and downstream levels according to the “F-limit,” exceeded the Plan 2014 flow and initiated major deviations in accordance with criterion H14 to provide all possible relief to riparians upstream of the dam.

The flow of 10,200 m3/s (360,200 cfs) was equivalent to the record-maximum weekly mean values passed under Plan 1958-DD in 1993 and 1998 and also equivalent to the maximum “L-limit” value, another rule within Plan 2014. This limit defines the maximum outflow that will maintain adequate levels and safe velocities for navigation in the International Section of the St. Lawrence River when Lake Ontario levels are very high - from above 75.70 meters until 76 meters (248.36 feet until 249.34 feet). The St. Lawrence Seaway imposed several mitigation measures to ensure safe vessel transits remained possible.

Despite these record high releases, inflows also remained well above normal seasonal values, and Lake Ontario levels remained high and peaked near the end of May at 75.88 meters or 248.95 feet, a new all-time record value. Montreal area levels, after their rapid rise toward record values throughout the first third of May, generally declined slowly thereafter as Lake Ontario outflows were increased, but Ottawa River outflows decreased at a faster rate.

In total, Lake Ontario outflows were adjusted 23 times in May.

Heavy Rainfalls Continue (June and July)

By June 2, water levels on Lake St. Louis had started to decline. On June 14, the board initiated additional major deviations from Plan 2014 flows, increasing the Lake Ontario outflow to 10,400 m3/s (367,300 cfs). This was a new record-maximum weekly flow, the highest ever released from Lake Ontario. The St. Lawrence Seaway imposed further mitigation measures and undertook an assessment of this higher outflow for several days, concluding that it was the absolute maximum outflow possible to maintain adequate levels and safe velocities for navigation in the International Section of the river. After some deliberation regarding the impacts of increasing the outflows further, the board decided to maintain this outflow for the remainder of the month and into July.

The monthly mean outflow from Lake Ontario in June averaged 10,310 m3/s (364,100 cfs), 38 percent above the June long-term average (1900-2016) and a new record-high value for any month, exceeding the previous record of 10,010 m3/s (353,500 cfs) set in May and June of 1993.

Wet weather continued in June. A particularly noteworthy storm on June 23 dropped 20.5 mm or 0.8 inches of rain on the Lake Ontario basin.  After gradually declining for most of the month, Lake Ontario levels rose slightly as a result. The total inflow to Lake Ontario during the month was the second highest recorded in June since 1900. Nonetheless, the record-high outflows allowed Lake Ontario levels to fall 9 cm or 3.5 inches overall in June - much more than the typical 1 cm or 0.4 inch decline, and the 11th highest June decline on record. By the end of June, Lake Ontario was 10 cm or 3.9 inches below the peak level recorded on May 29. About 6.6 cm or 2.6 inches of that water was removed from Lake Ontario, owing to major deviations undertaken since May 23. The remainder was due to high outflows prescribed by Plan 2014 and the fact that inflows, while still high, had begun to decline.

Montreal area levels generally fell through the middle of June as Ottawa River outflows declined, but rose slightly at the end of June and even further during the first week of July, reaching high levels and flooding similar to that seen earlier in the spring.

The board agreed to continue releasing 10,400 m3/s (367,300 cfs) into July. Despite these efforts, the continuing wet conditions sustained the high levels and severe impacts to Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River property owners, recreational boaters, businesses and tourism. Lake Erie remained well above average, and combined with significant rainfall during the past month, the total inflow to Lake Ontario remained high.

Decisions and the Path Forward

Lake Ontario water level forecast through end of 2017
Lake Ontario water level forecast through end of 2017. Credit: Environment & Climate Change Canada

The first several months of 2017 have been an especially challenging time for those living and working throughout the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River system. Many have been impacted by the exceptionally high water levels.  While levels have begun to decline, the effects continue to be felt and may continue for months to come.

For its part, the board has made every effort to address the exceptional weather conditions and reduce levels to the extent possible. Outflows were continuously adjusted from January through March during what was a generally wet winter, with highly variable temperatures and challenging ice conditions. As the weather turned from bad to worse, the board continued to adjust outflows in April and May, this time to address the extreme precipitation, record inflows and rapidly rising water levels which have caused severe flooding and associated impacts throughout the system. Since then, the board has increased outflows to record-high values in an attempt to lower the extraordinary levels of Lake Ontario and provide relief to those impacted, while also considering the impacts to riparian interests downstream on the St. Lawrence, and to other stakeholders, including commercial navigation and the industries it supports.

Despite these efforts, wet weather has continued and levels have remained high. There are unfortunately no simple solutions, but the board will continue to consider all possible options, as well as associated impacts, in setting outflows from Lake Ontario. High outflows are expected to continue for several weeks, and as warmer and drier summer conditions continue and evaporation rates increase into the fall. The board expects water levels throughout the system will generally continue to decline, providing gradual relief from the high water crisis of 2017. But keep in mind that water levels may remain above normal for some time to come, and autumn brings a higher chance of damaging storms. Strong winds and wave action can cause significant fluctuations on the lake and river, with temporary changes of more than half a meter (2 feet) in certain locations.

Further information on Lake Ontario flow regulation can be found at the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board Facebook page and the board’s web site.


Board Reaching Thousands Online

By Arun Heer, International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board

Since the establishment of the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board by the International Joint Commission in 1952, keeping people informed about water level and flow conditions in the lake and river has been a top priority. With the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River basin covering such a broad geographic area, including communities in New York, and the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, communication has often been challenging and resource intensive. In the past, the board relied on methods such as in-person public meetings, telephone conferences, and mailing news releases and hard-copy letters to connect with people.

Today, the board is reaching out with modern communication tools such as Facebook, webpages, electronic mailing lists, animated videos, and digital press releases to deliver messages quickly. The board’s Facebook page, in particular, has proven to be a great forum for posting information on topics such as water levels, outflow changes and hydrologic forecasts.

The Facebook page had close to 800 “likes” in January, and that number had increased to more than 2,300 as of July 24. Facebook has become a place where the board can interact with the community in real-time, and where members of the public can interact with one another to share and exchange information.

The board encourages everyone to visit its Facebook page for the most up-to-date information on board activities and join the conversation. Additionally, short educational videos, media releases, and other information can be found on the board’s website.


Arun Heer
IJC Great Lakes Adaptive Management Committee

Arun Heer, US Chair, Great Lakes Adaptive Management Committee

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