Lake Ontario commission discusses shoreline rebuilding plans

James Neiss/staff photographer This file photo shows a Border Patrol boat as it launches at Fort Niagara State Park where high lake levels submerged dock access ramps earlier this year. On Wednesday, members of the Lake Ontario Resiliency and Economic Development (REDI) Initiative commission met with local officials to discuss long-term plans for protecting lake shoreline communities from future flooding. 

Local officials are beginning to pitch projects to protect lakeshore communities from future flooding, with proposals ranging from raising the Lewiston waterfront to installing signals on now-submerged piers.

Last month, Gov. Cuomo announced the state would provide up to $300 million to help lakeshore communities reinforce infrastructure that is susceptible to damage from high water. The state also formed the Lake Ontario Resiliency and Economic Development (REDI) Initiative commission, consisting of seven leaders of state agencies, to determine which projects should receive that funding.

The REDI commission held a series of meetings across the state Wednesday, initiating the project application process. 

Dozens of local, county and state officials gathered for one meeting at Somerset Town Hall, offering ideas such as reinforcing the shorelines at Golden Hill State Park and Camp Kenan, and making improvements to the wastewater treatment plant that serves Newfane and Wilson.

Also at the meeting was the Regional Planning Committee, which will be tasked with reviewing and recommending projects to the REDI commission. The committee will accept proposed projects through Aug. 2, and will send its recommendations to the REDI commission by mid-September.

"We recognize the high water levels are really having an impact," said Mark V. Mistretta, Western District Director of State Parks. "We need to be more proactive."

The REDI commission and the planning committee will evaluate proposed projects based on the flood risk to an asset and the asset's importance to the community, Mistretta said. Project proposals are expected to heavily outpace the amount of money available for lakeshore resiliency.

The Legislature has approved $100 million toward the effort, while the state has committed to providing a total of $300 million from other funding sources.

Department of Environmental Conservation Regional Director Abby Snyder said critical infrastructure, such as pump stations and wastewater treatment plants, may be given the highest priority, though she encouraged local leaders to submit any project of consequence to the community. 

“At the moment we’re brainstorming. They should be putting forth any project that they think has some value and asset ... to the community,” Snyder said.

Individual residences likely won't be considered for funding, though some projects on private property may be eligible. Snyder said the committee may recommend protections for grouped-together septic systems that serve multiple homes. Mistretta said protections to businesses also may be eligible.

“We can’t exclude private properties. If there’s a real community asset that’s privately owned, that will have an impact on the economy, that is certainly something we will consider," Mistretta said. "I think it’ll be a mix, but probably more heavily weighted toward the municipalities.”

Numerous lakeshore businesses have reported physical damage and lost revenue amid the highest Lake Ontario water levels on record. And when business at docks and charter boating companies is down, nearby businesses suffer.

Jim Bowman, owner of the Wilson Lakeside Market, said his store's revenue was down 19 percent in May compared to May of 2018, when water levels were much closer to the lake's long-term average.

"It's not my business (that experienced damaged). I benefit from enhanced tourism, from more people coming into the area," Bowman said.

But private property owners also will need to convince their municipalities to fund the project, as the state requires municipalities to chip in 15 percent of the project costs.

"That's a question they have to ask themselves when submitting the project," State Sen. Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, said.

"For some of these projects, you're never going to have a better opportunity to get them done," he added.

Some communities were already working to create more resilient shorelines prior to this spring, when lake waters began to rise toward the highest level on record.

The Village of Lewiston was working on a $1.6 million project to raise a low section of its waterfront by two feet and create floating docks, utilizing a combination of state grants, insurance money and Federal Emergency Assistance Management funds, said Mayor Anne Welch.

If it had been completed by this spring, the docks would have remained operational throughout the summer. But the high water came too soon and flooded the slips.

"We actually did mitigation and raised them two feet, so it wasn't going to happen again," Welch said. "But before we could there, the water came in and we got swamped again."