Lake Ontario Flooding Renews Debate Over U.S. Canada Water Pact

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is pictured. | Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

Cuomo declared a state of emergency in all the counties along the shoreline earlier this month. | Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

Lake Ontario flooding renews debate over U.S.-Canada water pact

By MARIE J. FRENCH

ALBANY — Sustained flooding and expectations of continued high water levels on the shoreline of Lake Ontario have renewed a debate about a controversial water management plan approved in December.

The plan, which allows for lake levels to remain higher for longer and fluctuate between a wider range than under previous plans, was the result of 16 years of work and was approved after two years of negotiations by the United States and Canada.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo stayed on the sidelines during talks between the two countries despite pleas to intervene from advocates from both sides of the debate.

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Critics now are calling for the plan to be reconsidered, although most experts agree the plan did not cause the current crisis.

Cuomo recently announced that he doesn't support the plan. On Monday, he assailed the International Joint Commission, which has implemented the plan and manages water levels.

“There’s no doubt but that the IJC blew it. They blew it! I don’t even see how you can debate that," Cuomo said at a briefing in the Monroe County town of Greece. "I understand they have a lot of concerns to deal with, they’re dealing with continental Canada and Montreal and [the] St. Lawrence [River] — I represent the people of the State of New York. The people of the state of New York are getting the short end of the stick.”

Upstate Republican Reps. John Katko and Chris Collins have called for the Trump administration to withdraw from the plan. Assemblymembers Will Barclay and Bob Oaks, both Republicans, have called for reconsidering the plan and providing more resources for residents along the lakeshore. One battered community, the village of Sodus Point, wants to file a lawsuit over the plan.

The plan, known as Plan 2014, was approved by both the U.S. and Canadian governments in December and deals specifically with the flow of water through the Moses-Saunders Power Dam, which straddles the border between the two countries along the St. Lawrence River.

The flow of water as it heads downstream to Montreal controls the water level in Lake Ontario. The dam is overseen by a board of an International Joint Commission which has an equal number of Canadian and U.S. members. Under Plan 2014, higher levels of water would be required to trigger outflows from the dam than under a previous management plan.

Environmental groups and other supporters of the new management system say it allows a more natural fluctuation in water levels and will help restore thousands of acres of wetlands that have been harmed by the previous plan. But, say the plan's opponents, it also means that businesses and residents along the southern shoreline of Lake Ontario will see damage to their properties and increased erosion.

Both sides in the debate, starting when the plan was first proposed in 2014, lobbied the governor to take a stand. They argued the U.S. Department of State, which was responsible for the final U.S. sign off, would have given weight to Cuomo's opinion. But the administration took no position.

Flooding from Olcott in Niagara County along the shoreline of Lake Ontario to Ogdensburg on the St. Lawrence River has closed some public beaches, flooded homes and closed businesses that rely on the water. Lake Ontario has hit historically high levels and is expected to remain above average levels for several weeks.

"Marinas are closed, they’re out of business,” said Frank Sciremammano, a senior U.S. member of the board responsible for managing the water levels. Sciremammano lives in Brighton, a suburb of Rochester. “This is having a real economic impact as well as the damages to the homeowners."

Cuomo declared a state of emergency in all the counties along the shoreline earlier this month. State lawmakers are pressing for new programs to help homeowners, businesses and residents impacted by the flooding but Cuomo said he wants to assess the damage first.

Cuomo signed a measure to free up emergency infrastructure money for communities along Lake Ontario on Thursday. Cuomo has made about $21 million available for local governments, homeowners and businesses in the past week through existing programs. Assembly Democrats are pushing for $105 million in new funding, while Senate Republicans have introduced a proposal to make $55 million available.

“The important thing is that all three of us are talking about the need for a plan,” said Democratic Assemblywoman Addie Jenne, who represents communities in the North Country including along the St. Lawrence River.

Jenne said she supported Plan 2014 and still does. Additional money should be invested in monitoring flows into Lake Ontario to help better manage the plan, she said.

“Our governor missed an opportunity to shape the plan that he’s now dealing with the consequences of,” Save the River's executive director Lee Willbanks said. He said Cuomo never addressed the issue until earlier this month. Willbanks supports Plan 2014 but said it is not the cause of the current flooding.

Sciremammano, who opposed the plan, also concedes the flooding that's happening now would likely still have happened under the old system. The major factor driving the current flooding is high rainfall and snow runoff, said DEC executive deputy commissioner Ken Lynch.

Flooding downstream, including in Montreal, restricted the amount that could be let out of the dam as flooding began on the Lake Ontario shoreline. Now that water has receded there, outflows from the dam have been increased.

Cuomo criticized the IJC board's decision to not let out water sooner.

“I don’t buy their current rationale — that they can’t lower the lake because they’re going to cause navigational issues for shipping — this can’t go on," Cuomo said. “This has to stop and it has to stop now.”

The real effects of Plan 2014 will be felt when the lake level lowers to the new trigger level and further action to let water out is restricted, Sciremammano said. Higher levels will linger and raise the possibility of more damage when storms hit.

"The high water is going to remain much longer than if the board was allowed broad discretion,” he said. “You’re basically opening the window longer for damage to occur."

In the long term, allowing water levels in the lake and along the St. Lawrence to rise higher and drop lower will help restore wetlands that provide erosion control, water filtering and other benefits, said Save the River's Willbanks.

Both state and federal governments should provide resources to help mitigate the impacts of the changes to the water management plan, Willbanks said. But he cautioned that money should be wisely used to acknowledge the "dynamic" nature of Lake Ontario and the river.

“We cannot continue to build concrete walls to keep the Lake on one side and ourselves on the other,” he said. “We need to take that passion and interest and turn it into an ongoing discussion about how we live next to a dynamic water body."

The state DEC and the New York Department of State are working to implement Plan 2014, the agencies said in a joint statement. The state will enhance programs to encourage nature-based shorelines, improved engineering criteria for repairing coastal structures, coastal vulnerability assessments and other outreach.

"We ask that the U.S. government provide funding sufficient to assist New York communities in adapting to this internationally designed plan," they said.

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Source : http://www.politico.com/states/new-york/albany/story/2017/05/30/lake-ontario-flooding-renews-debate-over-new-plan-to-manage-water-levels-112340

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