Environmental damage from Lake Ontario flooding could be permanent

May 22, 2017

Lake Ontario is now 33 inches above its long-term average and it's not yet at its peak. That sustained flooding is threatening residents along the shorelines and scientists say it is also taking a toll on the environment.

Dave White with New York Sea Grant says some of the flooding damage from what he calls a several-months-long weather event will be permanent, but it's difficult to know just how profound the impact is on the environment until the water recedes. He says it's like waiting for morning to come after a storm blows through in the night.

"We're going to wait for the light but the light is not going to come for several weeks to several months to potentially several years," White said. 

Some environmental damage is already on full display. The fresh water sand dunes along Oswego and Jefferson counties that support several ecosystems are being washed away and in some places completely overtaken. That's bad news for residents too because these strips of land act as a natural barrier between the shoreline and Lake Ontario.

The historically high water levels in Lake Ontario have engulfed the north side sand dune in Sandy Pond. The photo on the left was taken on April 3 and the photo on the right was taken on May 13.
Credit Cathy Goodnaugh

Sandy Creek resident Rob Tackney has been watching the water engulf Sandy Pond's barriers for weeks.

"It takes out those sand dunes over there and I'll tell you what -- a whole new game now because we're now on the open lake," Tackney said. 

The north side of the Sandy Pond sand dune is now under water. White says the breaching like that has not happened in four decades and it could take years to repair them.

"And the longer this goes and the more storm generated wave you have, those breaches are becoming wider and deeper and basically forming new channels and that becomes a concern that you have multiple channels on bays that may have only had one more before what is that impact ecologically, environmentally and economically to those areas," White said. 

White is referring to the ecosystems that rely on shore, wetlands and sand dunes, which are now flooded.

"We have lost entire beach area it's now cutting into the dune area that takes years to rebuild that many of those areas will need to be re-vegetated those are areas that are extremely common and popular for migrating birds and other wildlife," he said. 

A spokesperson for the Oswego County Emergency Management Office says the disintegrating sand dunes in Sandy Pond are one of its concerns and they are monitoring the situation.