Warm weather reignites flooding concerns for Cross Lake and neighbors on Seneca River

John W. Mannion

Originally published in CNY Central

Warm weather has made a sudden, albeit brief return to Central New York - raising concerns about flooding in areas left underwater for weeks late last year.

With temperatures set to climb into the 50’s - nearly 20 degrees above the seasonal average in Syracuse - snow left on the ground is melting. Coming down on top is rain that began falling Thursday - and the water needs to go somewhere.

In the Village of Jordan, Department of Public Works Superintendent Pat Byrnes is getting prepared.

“We make sure our storm basins are all set and clear so they can accept water,” said Byrnes, “that’s all we can do, prep.”

Byrnes is expecting snow melt to cause problems Friday and Saturday, explaining that the floodwaters will lag behind Thursday’s rainfall. He said the snow alone in this region isn’t the biggest problem - it’s snow melt and water build up further up river in the Finger Lakes.

Water that starts in Cayuga Lake is released through the Seneca River, traveling up through Baldwinsville and eventually on to Ontario. Local neighbors and advocates say the current floodgate system makes flooding in Cayuga and Onondaga County inevitable.

Mike and Mindy Smart own the Willie’s Way campground along the Seneca River in Cross Lake. Their neighbors were left flooded for 6 weeks in October, suffering thousands of dollars in property damage.

“You either try and mitigate, or the state or someone has to buy out all these properties and just say let it flood,” said Mindy, “I don’t know what else you can do.”

They’re pointing to a study conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1999, which concluded that flooding could be minimized if changes are made to the floodgates between Cayuga Lake and Ontario. A major change would need to come to Baldwinsville, according to local experts, as the current floodgate isn’t big enough to accept the high volume of water released from Cayuga Lake after heavy rainfall.

Instead, the Smarts say the Cross Lake area is left as the catch-all for the water, creating high floodwaters.

At Willie’s Way, Mike showed that the water came in dozens of yards from the shoreline, which he said the area hasn’t seen in 100 years.

“People tend to forget a little about this area,” Mike said, “maybe a better balancing act [is needed] when it comes to rising water.”

State Senator John Mannion toured impacted areas in the fall, advocating for the Upstate Flood Mitigation Task Force to meet for the first time. The agency was formed in 2017 - but has yet to meet. This past January, Governor Hochul approved Mannion’s legislation to extend the powers of the task force until July 2023.

Byrnes is hoping the state reopens the Army Corps of Engineer’s study to overhaul the floodgates on the Seneca River - he said the money is there, and is a necessary step to prevent flooding becoming an inevitability for communities whenever the weather gets warmer.

He said if the floodgate is expanded in Baldwinsville - the flooding would stop.

“This amount of water going to Ontario is like dropping a drop of water in your bath tub,” Byrnes said.