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Extremely low water levels could spell shortened season for boaters this fall

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While this summer’s sweltering heat has boosted boating traffic at marinas along Lake Ontario’s shoreline, boaters likely will start pulling their boats out of the water up to three weeks sooner than usual if the water level continues to drop.

Some owners of large sailboats that require more water to operate than power boats are already talking about taking them out for winter storage, said Michael W. Campbell, managing agent for the Madison Barracks Marina in Sackets Harbor. Those boat owners are talking about ending their season by Labor Day weekend, he said, while boaters ordinarily don’t do so until the beginning of October.

“It’s at least a foot down here right now, and it appears it’s going to potentially drop more,” Mr. Campbell said. “It’s all going to depend on where it goes from here.”

Power boat owners like Mr. Campbell could elect to keep their boats in the water for the rest of the season, though, depending on the ensuing trend.

“I don’t see this as an issue for power boats” yet, he said. Most experienced boaters are familiar with where shallow areas and rocks are, he said.

Thursday’s water level on Lake Ontario was 244.78 feet — 12 inches lower than on Aug. 24, 2011 — according to a Great Lakes water report by the Army Corps of Engineers. That figure is 38 inches down from the highest water level recorded for the August since 1918 and 24 inches higher than the lowest recorded level. All other Great Lakes are more than 10 inches lower than last year in August, except for Lake Superior, which is only one inch lower.

In an attempt to build up Lake Ontario’s water level, this summer the International St. Lawrence River Board of Control has restricted the downstream flow through the river at the Robert H. Moses-Saunders Power Dam in Massena. The restoration strategy was started in March by the board to make up for the increased water flow through the dam during the winter, when unusually high water levels on Lake Ontario were at risk of exceeding the upper limit. Higher than average discharge rates during the winter dropped the lake’s water level to prevent flooding and erosion problems for property owners.

To regain the water that was lost by the winter’s increased flow, the Board of Control has reduced the rate of water flow at the dam every month since March.

The rates are adjusted weekly by the Board of Control to account for changing weather and flow from the upper Great Lakes, which makes up 80 percent to 85 percent of the water that flows to Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.

The higher than-average discharge at the dam this year released roughly five inches more than normal, and about four inches of that amount has been restored since March, said Thomas E. Brown of Clayton, one of the four U.S. members on the Board of Control. The board is also represented by four Canadian members.

The water restoration goal of five inches will likely be met this fall, Mr. Brown said,which will enable the board to start releasing a normal flow of water again.

“We’re going to fulfill it. It’s just a question of when,” he said. “Right now, there isn’t enough water to go around, though, and we’re at the mercy of flows from the upper Great Lakes. You have a situation where all the Great Lakes are well below their average, which makes it greatly difficult to maintain a higher water level.”

The current level still is within the Board of Control’s range of regulation, though, which has a lower limit of 243.3 feet and upper limit of 247.3 feet.

Meanwhile the board’s water restoration strategy, coupled with the drought, has created a dire situation at many marinas in the region. Some marinas have barely enough water to get boats in and out.

“We are very, very low,” said John J. Killius, owner of Henchen Marina in Henderson Harbor. “We have barely deep enough water, but it’s getting close. If it starts to drop more, we’re in trouble, because people are going to take their boats out.”

Most marinas won’t be hurt much financially if boaters leave a week or two early. But if they don’t rent boat slips in the spring due to ongoing low water levels, marinas could lose them for the whole season.

“We had such a nice summer and everyone used their boats, so if the season ends a week or two early it’s not going to hurt us,” said Stephen T. “Beaver” Martin, co-owner of Martin’s Marina and Motel in Cape Vincent, “If they don’t restore the water level, it could be devastating next spring, because people will decide not to put their boats in the water.”

Especially, he added, if the north country gets another mild winter from Mother Nature.

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