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Lake levels surge by more than a foot in hours: Docks swamped in Finger Lakes as rain causes worst flooding in decades

  • / Updated:
  • Peter Mantius 

Heavy rains over the past week caused water levels on several of the Finger Lakes to rise by more than a foot in a matter of hours, wrecking docks, freeing boats and strewing logs and smaller debris.

The rare Fall lake flood event may be the worst to hit the region since the June 1972 floods triggered by Hurricane Agnes, according to Jake Welch, president of Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association.

“We haven’t seen a lake flood like this in my 20 years here,” Welch said. “To have this in the fall when lake levels are typically at the lowest levels…Holy Criminy!”

The fueling dock at The Olney Place on Keuka Lake late last month. (phot by Seth Olney)

Cayuga Lake at Ithaca rose more than a foot and a half in roughly 16 hours after heavy rains on Tuesday, Oct. 26. At 7 a.m. that morning the lake level stood at 382.5 feet (above sea level). By evening it had swelled to more than 384 feet, easily passing flood stage of 383.5 feet.

This morning Cayuga level was reported 384.8 feet, barely below 385, the official level for a “major flood.” The water is not expected to recede significantly over the next several days, even without more rain. “Cayuga Lake is a bathtub that fills up first because it’s the lowest,” said Hilary Lambert, executive director of the Cayuga Lake Watershed Network.

“The 1972 flood remains the worst, but this is the worst over a period of several months. We’ve had all these crazy inundations, beginning with the mega rains in June and July that caused all the famous waterfalls to gush and go crazy. It  flooded docks then.

“Now we’re seeing these enormous weather events (in the Fall) at a time when there’s usually low flow in the creeks….The heart of the problem is climate change.”

Seneca, Canandaigua and Keuka lakes have also suffered sharply rising levels since in the wake of the storms late last month.

Keuka’s level shot up from 714.7 feet Friday evening to 715.95 feet early Saturday morning.

Although that’s six inches shy of official flood stage (716.5 feet), it was enough to cover the fueling dock at The Olney Place, eight miles south of Penn Yan on Keuka’s eastern arm.

Keuka is still astounding high,” Welch said. “The water is raging out of the Keuka Outlet (at Dresden) into Seneca.”

Last week’s rains and the extraordinary flow from Keuka Outlet pushed Seneca’s level from 446.1 feet on Oct. 26 to 447.9 feet a week later. It is expected to remain an inch or two below official flood stage of 448 feet at least until Thursday evening. Seneca’s record high of 448.95 feet was set on April 26, 1993.

The lakes are part of a network of canals and waterways within the Oswego River Basin, an area of 5,122 square miles that drains into Lake Ontario.

Seneca Lake is filled by tributaries to its south, east and west. It empties into the Cayuga-Seneca Canal near Geneva, which flows into Cayuga Lake.

Seneca Lake’s discharge is managed by Gravity Renewables, a private company that controls hydroelectric power plant locks at Waterloo and Seneca Falls.

The New York State Canal Corp. operates a bypass gate, nicknamed the Mud Lock, that controls the flow of water north to the Seneca River and eventually Lake Ontario.

So while water flows into Cayuga from Seneca from the west through the Seneca-Cayuga Canal, it may be allowed to flow out to the north through the Mud Lock.

But the Canal Corp. must balance various interests as it decides how much water to let out of Cayuga Lake and past another key lock north of Port Byron that affect homes further along Seneca River.

The river flows northeast into Cross Lake, 20 miles west of Syracuse, on its way toward Ontario. Residents there are furious that those managing regional water flows have allowed the lake to rise to 383 feet, roughly nine feet above its normal level.

“We’re going to be calling around a few attorneys in the area to see if they can help us,” Dan Williamson, whose backyard near Williamson is flooded.

Meanwhile, Canandaigua lake has seen its level rise to 689.9 feet, just shy of the 690 official flood stage. Other Finger Lakes, including Honeoye and Owasco, were not as severely affected.

Both Lambert and Welch said the recent lake flooding is only a harbinger of worse to come as a result of climate change.

“I’ve been to a series of lectures at Cornell,” Welch said. “They were saying, ‘Get ready for it. You’re going to see so many flood events.’

“And we better start getting ready for it with cover crops, better farming and logging practices.”

He said he’s proposed a storm water conservation group that focuses on protecting the lake from deluges and the nitrogen and phosphorus loads that gush down the tributaries to spur weed growth and harmful algal blooms.

Lambert said the increasingly intense weather events are overpowering the 19th century lock systms designed to moderate water flows during the more moderate rainy periods of the past.

Climate change is going to require an entirely different plan, they said.

Water from Seneca Lake flows through the Seneca-Cayuga Canal (CS2,3,4) into Cayuga Lake. Water from Cayuga flows north to the Mud Lock (CS1) into the Seneca River and eventually into Lake Ontario.