The flooding on Lake Ontario and the losses suffered by residents in both New York state and Canada made me think about various stories I have heard about flooding on Seneca Lake. After the flash flood in Lodi last year, I think most of us realize that water is an extremely powerful force and many times man has no control over it.
On Aug. 14, 2018 residents around Seneca Lake and most of the Finger Lakes area awoke to hear news of terrible flash flooding that occurred in the area of Lower Lake Road in Lodi. A drenching rain had filled people’s homes with water, washed belongings, buildings and even cars into Seneca Lake. The counties of Ontario, Seneca, Wayne, Yates, Steuben and Monroe all suffered flooding and were among those placed under a state of emergency.
Depending on where the rain was measured, between 5 and almost 9 inches of rain fell and Seneca Lake’s water level rose by 8 inches in a very short time. I won’t go over the damages and problems that ensued, but this was not the first time nor will it be the last that sudden unexpected flooding caused problems for lakeshore dwellers.
Carol Sisler wrote in her book “Seneca Lake: Past, Present and Future” about lake levels stating, “Nothing inflames the passions around the lake more than the topic of the water level.” Sisler’s book mentions that Seneca Lake suffered much destruction due to high water levels in 1935, 1972 and 1993. The flood waters of 1972 did not recede for a month, causing a great deal of anger on the part of lake residents.
Geneva’s location on the northern end of Seneca Lake enhances southern wind-driven waves. From the time the Cayuga Canal opened from one lake to the other in 1828 it was evident that some sort of breakwater would be needed to protect the canal’s entrance into Geneva Harbor. An earthen seawall was the answer to the problem for many years, but this type of construction was no match for the storm-generated waves. Shipping interests were frequently disrupted by breaches in the breakwater and by 1870 the state of New York was forced to become involved financially for a more permanent solution. The idea was to raise an existing berm on the lake shore by 3 feet. They would also build a seawall of “loose stone” to keep the sediment from washing into the canal and filling it in.
By 1894 the state legislators, once again, had to appropriate more money to fortify the berm and existing breakwater. The legislators had to come up with more funding in 1895 and 1897, by which time a seawall of quarry stone 7,700 feet long was constructed. Even that was an insufficient barrier and by 1903 it was reported that the stone wall did not successfully resist even an ordinary south wind.
Even with continuous upgrades the seawall could not withstand a storm from the south in 1950 which poured over parts of the breakwater to flood sections of Geneva.
Only six years after the 1950 storm 60 feet of seawall between Evans and Pre-Emption streets was torn away in an October storm. A disagreement between the state and the city over which entity was responsible for repairs made them difficult to complete. The creation of Seneca Lake State Park in the late 1950s and early 1960s finally put New York state in charge of repairs to the seawall and Lake Road (not to be confused with the Routes 5&20 bypass) which ran close to the shore.
As with many communities plagued by flooding, man-made controls instituted to mitigate damage in one area often make it worse in another. Keuka Lake sends water to Seneca Lake, which in turn sends it to Cayuga Lake. The optimum water level of Seneca Lake is a delicate balancing act — too much water and residents and businesses along the lake suffer from flooding, too little water and beach wells could run dry and pipes freeze. The village of Penn Yan regulates the water flow from Keuka to Seneca and the state of New York regulates the water flow from Seneca to Cayuga (because of the Cayuga-Seneca Canal) using the Taintor Gates in Waterloo. The gates can discharge a maximum amount of 2,500 cubic feet of water per second. It takes at least a discharge of 2,000 cubic feet per second to lower Seneca Lake 1 inch in 24 hours with no additional precipitation happening!
As you can see there are no quick or easy fixes where water levels are concerned. Whether the water is contained in an ocean, a lake, a river or other body of water it is a powerful force and almost impossible to control as Geneva’s experience with Seneca Lake has proven. History shows us that Mother Nature demands our respect in all things.
Osburn is the Geneva City Historian and may be reached at Kdosburn2@gmail.com