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IJC Chair: U.S. and Canadian governments have final say on water plan for Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River


This could be the last chance, at least for the foreseeable future, to change how Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River’s flows are regulated.

Regardless of what strategy the International Joint Commission puts forward for the U.S. and Canadian governments’ approval this fall, if either of the two governments rejects the commission’s proposal, that decision is final.

“In every other case, we have the last word. We do not need to ask for the permission of either government. We make an order and it happens,” said commission Co-Chairwoman Lana Pollack, prior to a public hearing in Alexandria Bay on Wednesday.

She is one of six commissioners and the head of the U.S. section of the IJC.

The regulation of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River is a unique case where the IJC — a bilateral agency created to deal with disputes over the use of the two nations’ shared waters — does not have the level of authority to change the flow plan.

This is because St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario flows are moderated through the release of water at the Robert H. Moses-Saunders Power Dam in Massena and Cornwall, and the applicants for the dam were the two federal governments.

“So if they say no, it’s no,” Ms. Pollack said. “Ultimately, the two federal governments have the responsibility to either accept IJC’s recommendations or reject it. And if they reject it, they own it.”

The hydroelectric dam was built in the 1950s and began producing power in 1958. The now century-old IJC, established through a 1909 treaty between the U.S. and Canada, created the St. Lawrence River Board of Control to regulate the release at the dam based on Plan 1958-D.

The plan was ever-so-slightly altered to allow for day-to-day deviations — hence the extra “D” in the current plan 1958-DD — but still mostly protects only the interest of certain stakeholders: hydropower, commercial navigation and coastal property.

Fifty years of the regulation led to unexpected environmental degradation along the lake and river. That’s why northern Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River communities — which depend heavily on recreational boating and tourism for their livelihood — stand in support of IJC’s latest proposal, Plan 2014, which is designed to bring back more natural water fluctuation patterns.

Coastal property owners along the southeastern lakeshore, however, say they feel threatened by the projections of more frequent flooding with higher water levels allowed under Plan 2014. They argue that the “environmentally-friendly” aspect of the proposed plan is greatly exaggerated to avert attention from the IJC’s secret intention to create more electricity — thus revenue — at the hydropower dam.

Ms. Pollack denounced the conspiracy theory but acknowledged that hydropower would benefit the most.

“This plan wasn’t designed to advantage NYPA (New York Power Authority),” Ms. Pollack said. “But it is true that NYPA comes out a winner.”

According to an IJC economic impact study, hydropower production is projected to see an average annual gain of $5.2 million under Plan 2014.

While the IJC cannot mandate mitigation, she suggested that some of this extra revenue can be invested in a coastal management program to help prevent and alleviate property damage.

People and groups with opposing views should “overcome the distaste for each other” and join forces to have their governments fund such programs, she said.

“This is the kind of political lobbying we can’t do and we won’t do. But we can encourage others to find commonality,” she said. “You’re the ones who have influence collectively.”

At the public hearing in Alexandria Bay, Ms. Pollack told a crowd of 200 people that their opinions matter.

“The cake is not baked,” she said. “We haven’t had our decision on it; we haven’t heard from you. And we will not make a decision until we’ve heard from everybody.”

While most of the speakers Wednesday night were in favor of Plan 2014, concerns were raised that the proposal’s maximum water levels would cause a disaster along the south and eastern shore of the lake.

Unlike 1958-DD, which tries to keep water levels relatively stable within a 4-foot range — 243.3 feet to 247.3 feet — throughout the year, Plan 2014 allows for a greater variability in water levels while introducing “trigger levels” to allow regulators to deviate from the plan and take “extraordinary actions.”

The proposed trigger levels vary greatly depending on the season, from as high as 248.13 feet to a minimum of 243.14 feet.

“It’s a change and change is scary,” said U.S.-section IJC Commissioner Dereth Glance, before Wednesday’s hearing. “Challenges exist with this plan or with any other plan.”

She said once IJC makes its final recommendation, the federal governments would likely seek concurrence from the key jurisdictions — New York state and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec.

During the Alex Bay hearing, Ms. Pollack seemed optimistic that the U.S. and Canadian governments would accept IJC’s recommendation and suggested she was hoping for a relatively speedy implementation in 2014.

“We would hope that it is not rejected by the governments and frankly, I don’t think they will,” she said.

IJC’s last public hearing on Plan 2014 will be held tonight in Cornwall, Ontario, but written comments are accepted until Aug. 30.

For more information or to submit a comment online, visit IJC’s website for its latest public proposal:

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