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Lake levels are a balancing process

FINGER LAKES—The management of water levels in Keuka and Seneca Lakes includes a number of variables—and it’s a moving target that impacts many people and yet just a select group of individuals help to control it.
In a perfect year, the ebb and flow of water in and out of the lakes can be somewhat self-regulating. But this has not been a perfect year. Start with a winter that produced a higher than average snowfall, and then combine with a spring that has been warm enough to melt the snow—but not warm enough to thaw the ground thoroughly. Then, the problem is compounded by some human “improvements.” Homes, wineries and other man-made areas with parking lots and roofs covering an expanse of indoor space concentrate the run-off from drizzle and downpour.
In the network of lakes, canals and waterways that comprise the Oswego River Basin—which includes the largest Finger Lakes, draining an area of 5,122 square miles toward Lake Ontario—water flows from Keuka Lake to Seneca Lake, then out of Seneca Lake into the Cayuga-Seneca Canal into Van Cleef Lake in Seneca Falls, a body of water created in the early 20th century to serve as a reservoir for the canal locks and the barge canal.
Levels on both Keuka and Seneca Lakes are determined by a “rule curve” recommending optimum lake levels for navigation and flood prevention. The maximum optimal level for Keuka Lake is set at 714 feet plus a few inches—at this moment the lake level is slightly higher—though well short of flood stage. It’s important to note these numbers refer to the number of feet above sea level, not the lake depth—Keuka Lake’s higher elevation is a factor in the water flow. Lake levels for Keuka Lake may be found online at
Brent Bodine, director of public works for the village of Penn Yan, serves as gate master for the Keuka Lake Outlet Council (KLOC). There are six gates restricting the flow of water from Keuka Lake through its outlet to Seneca Lake; at this writing, five of those six gates are open, as they have been since the beginning of March. “We don’t operate Gate 6 unless there’s a true emergency,” Bodine says.
Bodine says the formula for gate openings and closings is mathematically calibrated. Still, a distress call from those monitoring water depths along the Seneca River prompted an end of March gate closing. “They had difficulty keeping the water within its banks,” he says, noting the quiet water occasioned by the temporary gate closing was enjoyed by the season’s early fishermen. But then it rained. Keuka Lake levels began rising again, and the gates needed to be reopened. Levels are now heading down again.
Hydrologists have to remain in frequent contact with their colleagues on other waterways. “The reality is, my responsibility in working with others and in being a good neighbor, is to keep an eye on what’s downstream and where all this water is going to go to. Our level started to drop, so we made a decision to close down to try to help them out. And then we had the rain and had that spike again,” Bodine says.
Seneca Lake water levels are similarly above the maximum target level, currently hovering around 447 feet, about a foot higher than desired. Minor flood damage happens just below 448 feet; major flood damage occurs at 448.5 feet. Current levels for Seneca Lake may be found at
Then the balancing act begins. “If the ground here is saturated and it rains one inch, the lake level can come up one foot,” says Scott Goodwin, president and chief executive officer of the Seneca Falls Power Corporation, a subsidiary of American Energy, Incorporated. The company, which generates hydroelectric power along the Seneca-Cayuga canal at two power stations—one in Seneca Falls and another in Waterloo, N.Y.—is based in California. Goodwin says he remains in close contact with people on the ground here who carefully monitor lake levels hour by hour. He declined to name personnel.
“If this water gets too high, we can’t just open a dam and drain it out because everything between here and Ontario would be flooded,” Goodwin says. “You can’t imagine how our operators stress and have anxieties over it. They’re water traffic cops. Our policy is that when there’s storm events, there’s no vacation times. All staff is required to be available 24/7. We’ve been running 24 hours a day for over a month, monitoring equipment and water levels at Keuka and Seneca Lake and at our own plants at Seneca and Waterloo, on the Seneca River north of Cayuga Lake and at Baldwinsville. It’s an integrated system with competing interests.”
The hydroelectric generating plants at Waterloo and Seneca Falls represent one of those interests. They need water for the plants to run—but they’re also required by an old agreement to maintain water at a navigational level in the canals. This means usually closing the plants for several months every summer when water levels fall, Goodwin says.
“We don’t run the locks,” Goodwin says. “If they run down the water, we have to fill it.
“If they run down the water levels, the Seneca Falls Power station goes offline. It’s a balancing system that ebbs and flows. We don’t control that. We’re part of it.”
Before the winter, lake levels were drawn down in anticipation of the spring rains and snow melt. On Seneca Lake, he notes, there’s never been a flood where buildings were carried away as happened along the Mississippi River as a result of Hurricane Katrina—even in 1972 during Hurricane Agnes. “There‘s a lot of capacity in the system and as long as there’s some capacity in the system there’s regulation. But it’s still a balancing process.”
Robert Kayser, chair of the water level committee for Seneca Lake Pure Waters says things were not balanced well enough. “Stored water represents a significant resource for them, so they have chosen to run their dams economically for themselves,” Kayser says. “I’m told they haven’t opened the bypass gates. They knew there was a snowpack and they should have been proactive in releasing water before the spring melt-off.”
Goodwin says Kayser is mis-informed and the bypass gates have been open this season.
According to Kayser, this year has seen no flooding in the areas downstream of the lake. “My suspicion is they left the water levels high because it represents an economic asset. I don’t fault anyone for the profit motive—but there’s a social responsibility as well as a contractual responsibility.” And, he adds, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has cited the Seneca Falls Power Corporation for violations, including low water levels and failing to meet other contractual obligations. Unlike the other Finger Lakes, lake levels on Seneca Lake consistently fall below normal levels each summer. He disputes SFPC’s contention that they regularly take their power plants off-line for several summer months. “I can only cite the historical record,” he says. “This sounds like a circumstance that could have been better managed.”




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