ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a State of Emergency for eight counties and announced the formation of a Lake Ontario Response Team in a visit on Tuesday to Ontario Beach Park, as the lake’s rising water levels continue to threaten property owners across Western New York.
With Lake Ontario as his backdrop, Cuomo told reporters in Rochester that the Army Corps of Engineers expects the water levels to rise an additional three inches by the end of May, on top of a two-foot increase in levels since the beginning of April.
“If that projection comes true,” Cuomo said, “it’ll make this situation even worse.”
Joined by lawmakers and law enforcement from the Rochester area, Cuomo said the Lake Ontario Response Team will consist of the National Guard, Department of Homeland Security, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, State Police and other local law enforcement agencies. In addition to the response team, the State of Emergency declaration allows the state more flexibility in sharing resources and expedites the DEC permit process for homeowners who need immediate flood relief.
Lake Ontario’s water levels are higher now than any time during the past few decades, due to a combination of factors including but not limited to the torrential rainfall in the month of April.
The State of Emergency appears to offer significant assistance to any county and community on the Lake Ontario shoreline, according to Assemblyman Stephen Hawley (R-Batavia). Hawley had publicly requested a State of Emergency declaration from the governor and said Tuesday he’s pleased with the announcement. Late Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Cuomo's office clarified that the State of Emergency extends to eight counties, including both Niagara and Orleans counties, which had already announced their own emergency declarations in April. Those two counties have received a combined 90,000 sandbags, according to the governor's office.
The state has also created a “regional stockpile” of equipment in Monroe County, according to Cuomo, although he specifically noted that the resources will be available to western counties like Orleans and Niagara. That equipment includes towers, generators, high-axle vehicles, boats, sandbags and barriers, according to Cuomo.
“The key, in a situation like this, is pre-positioning,” Cuomo said. “To the extent you can get sandbags up now, to the extent you can have pumps on site if flooding starts... We’re doing that. Boats to rescue people—we’re doing that.”
After his announcement in Rochester, Cuomo took several questions from reporters about the International Joint Commission, a U.S.-Canadian agency that has been blamed by some local and federal lawmakers for causing high waters on the lake. Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY), for example, has requested President Donald Trump’s administration help them reverse the IJC’s “Plan 2014,” a new water regulation measure that took effect this year.
The IJC points to natural factors as the cause of the rising water levels. Cuomo, who said he did not support Plan 2014, said he also believes a combination of factors has probably contributed to the current situation on Lake Ontario. However, he revealed on Tuesday that the state asked the IJC to release water on the St. Lawrence River in order to ease the flooding on Lake Ontario.
The IJC denied that request, Cuomo said, so the state is now turning to New York’s elected members of Congress to convince the IJC to change its mind.
“The International Joint Commission could order a dam release at St. Lawrence—their position is they’re against that because this is not just a situation at Lake Ontario, it’s all the Great Lakes. And if they release water, they’ll increase flooding somewhere else,” Cuomo said. “So they turned down that request. I’m appealing that request, and I’m appealing to our federal delegation for help with IJC.”
As the state awaits action from the IJC, Cuomo also said the DEC will be sending coastal engineers to inspect the coastline. That way, Cuomo said, the agency can make determinations about long-term flood preparations, such as where to place walls or dunes to protect the shore.
“I would expect to have flooding in the future,” Cuomo said, “so let’s make modifications and renovations that you have to make now to protect in the future.”