Lake Ontario's rising waters are sinking area businesses
High water has flooded docks, wrecked breakwalls, may discourage summer tourism
David Hedley wonders how many more years like his boatyard can take.
In 2017, the high water flooded 35 of the 65 docks at the Hedley Boat Yard — all but the floating docks — costing its owner some $85,000 in lost income. Hedley also experienced extensive physical damages to his Olcott Harbor business, including a compromised breakwall, after high waves washed away much of the earth behind and beneath his wall.
So far, Hedley has not been able to come up with the money to make the repairs. And he doesn't expect to anytime soon, in part because this year's high water as once again flooded every one of his docks that doesn't float.
"I’m a very small boatyard," Hedley said. "If I was a bigger boatyard, I could absorb much of that."
“I’m not a rich man," he added. "I can’t afford the hundreds of thousands in work that needs to be done.”
The combination of physical damage and lost income is unsustainable for Hedley. If the lake conditions of the last three years become the new norm, he may be forced to close the boatyard that his great-grandfather opened in 1920.
“I could lose my family’s 100-year-old business," he said.
Brian Price, owner of Niagara Jet Adventures in Youngstown, isn't weathering the high water much better. Like Hedley, and like so many others who staked their livelihoods along a Great Lakes waterway, the last two years have been devastating to his business.
During the flooding of 2017, the high river washed underneath his building, slowly percolated through the cracks between the boards and eventually wrecked his new floor. Price had to replace the floor and then add another floor six inches higher than the last, along with repairing broken pipes and destabilized concrete.
All told, the repairs set him back tens of thousands of dollars.
“We already went through this in 2017. It did damage to the building, it took a lot of income out at that time," Price said.
The loss of income is harder to calculate, partly because Price was able to remain open throughout the 2017 flooding, albeit just barely.
With the floor wet and wrecked, Price had to lay duckboards for guests to reach the 32-foot jet boats, where they strap in for wild, whitewater rides on the lower Niagara. The arrangement prevented guests from spending money at the bar or sitting at the tables with riverfront views, and likely discouraged countless others from embarking at all.
The neighboring Youngstown Yacht Club and RCR Yacht, which operates the club's marina, experienced similar dampers on summer tourism. The high water of 2017 flooded many of the shoreline slips, as well as the ramp that many boaters use to launch their crafts.
Though yachts and sailboats were still secured to moorings — which anchor crafts to the riverbed — many owners have long enjoyed docking their crafts and relaxing shoreside, often with friends. With the docks flooded, they couldn't.
“It kind of sucks the air out of everything," said Jim Egloff, boatyard manager of RCR Yacht.
Those impacts spread well beyond shoreside businesses. When boaters don't use the docks, and visitors don't go on boat tours, shoreside restaurants, hotels, shops and other businesses suffer.
“This waterway employs a lot of people," said Lloyd Schrack, a pilot for Niagara Jet Adventures.
Many Olcott business-owners have similar fears of a weak summer tourism season, especially following the closure of Olcott Beach for the season. The beach was also flooded and closed in 2017.
Karen Young, owner of Gift Box at the Beach, said Olcott still has plenty of tourist draws — fishing, the splash pad, Carousel Park, Lakeview Village Shoppes and zany summer events like the Olcott Pirate Festival and Mermaid Parade. Still, she worries outsiders may believe the entire village is flooded, rather than only a handful of docks and low areas.
“When people saw Olcott Beach was closed, people literally didn’t understand that only meant the swimming beach, not the entire town," Young said.
"There’s so much (else) going on," she added. "The beach wasn’t the main draw; it was an added benefit for Olcott.”
Some business-owners, like Jane Voelpel, owner of Bayside Guest House bed and breakfast, worry the constant media coverage of flooding in Olcott fuels the misconception of an entire community underwater.
“The Western New York media made it seem like Olcott is closed, and we had to counter that," Voelpel said. “As far as the business world, we’re still open, we’re still thriving.”
With Lake Ontario now projected to rise above the peak levels of 2017, there is little business-owners can do but sandbag their shorelines, deploy pumps and hope for the best.
For Price, the outlook isn't pretty.
The lower Niagara River is already level with his old floor; in a section behind the bar, which he didn't raise, water already is seeping through. If the water level rises another six inches — as regulators expect it will — the river will be level to his new floor, even on a calm day.
“If it goes up another six inches, we’re going to lose a lot again," Price said. "It’s going to hit the building again.”
Worse still, Price said he may not be able to remain open for business. During the peak levels of 2017, Price's fuel pumps were barely able to operate.
If the water rises just a couple of inches over the 2017 peaks, the water will flood the fuel pump motors, and Niagara Jet Adventures will have to shut down. The nearest fuel station, in Niagara-On-The-Lake, already had to close down, Price said.
“If the water comes up too far, we won’t be able to operate," Price said.
Hedley's outlook isn't much better, but for him, a bad 2019 boating season is already a near guarantee.
Even if the lake were to drop much faster than expected — which regulators don't consider likely, given the inflows from a record-high Lake Erie — Hedley would still miss the opportunity to rent over half of his docks this season.
“People are not going to rent docks for half the season," Hedley said.
"I could probably rent it out to submarines,” he said with bitter sarcasm.
Hedley just hopes future years will be drier so that he can recoup his loses. To that end, he and Price — along with thousands of others along the lakeshore — hope a new International Joint Commission will abandon Plan 2014, the new water regulation plan that many blame for the recent flooding.
“Somebody needs to figure this out," Price said. "This is pretty much infuriating to have to go through this again, and watch everybody suffer because somebody doesn’t know how to manage water.”
The IJC and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers say high rainfall, perhaps fueled by climate change, brought on the flooding, and that the new regulation plan had virtually no effect on the water levels. If their assessments are accurate, and new water management does not lessen the flooding in frequency or severity, business-owners from Lewiston to the St. Lawrence outlet will have to spend many thousands on new infrastructure.
But, as Hedley pointed out, not every business is large and lucrative enough to, say, add a new breakwall or raise their docks.
He hopes the state and federal government will offer more assistance, both for individuals and for larger undertakings that can protect an entire community. The Army Corps is currently studying a potential breakwall across Olcott, which could reduce wave action and flooding in the harbor.
But Hedley worries that assistance will arrive too late.
“By the time they get the grant money to do the walls, it’ll be too late," Hedley said. "This needs to be addressed now, before it causes more damage.”