MASSENA - A modern, more “natural” strategy to regulate Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River flows and prepare for climate change should be implemented “as soon as possible,” according to the International Joint Commission.
Commissioners of the IJC — a powerful, binational entity established to oversee U.S.-Canadian shared waters — announced Tuesday that they have unanimously endorsed Plan 2014 and are now awaiting the U.S. and Canadian federal governments’ approval.
“The development of this plan comes after 14 years of study” and takes into consideration input from various interest groups, Canadian IJC Chairman Gordon Walker said during a teleconference Tuesday morning.
Unlike the existing plan, 1958-DD, Plan 2014 acknowledges the environment and recreational boating as stakeholders and promises to help reverse the damage done to coastal wetlands over nearly six decades.
Lana Pollack, head of the U.S. section of the IJC, said recreational boaters can expect longer boating seasons “two years out of three” under Plan 2014.
This is because the proposed plan follows more closely a natural fluctuation pattern, meaning spring water levels would be generally higher and the draining of water in the fall would be more gradual.
On the opposite end of the scale are extra costs associated with coastal property protection and flood damage, which could amount to millions of dollars a year.
Field work and analysis during the commission’s study demonstrated that the current regulation plan has substantially degraded 64,000 acres of shoreline wetlands that are critical to filtering pollution and providing habitat to native amphibians, birds, mammals and fish.
The plan, which cost more than $20 million to develop, is subject to approval by the U.S. and Canadian governments, with no set timetable for implementation.
Crash course on water regulation
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, Ont. In reality, Mother Nature has more play in Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River’s water levels, but the plan aims to keep levels relatively stable within a 4-foot range — a minimum of 243.3 feet and 247.3 feet at the highest point.
“We’re in partnership with nature, and nature is the senior partner,” Ms. Pollack said.
Plan 2014’s “trigger levels,” however, would vary greatly depending on the season, much like the natural fluctuation of water levels.
But because it would allow high levels to reach as high as 248.1 feet, the plan has been raising concerns of flooding and erosion damage to coastal properties built closer to the water on the assumption that the regulations would not be drastically altered.
In a report released Tuesday, the IJC said that based on historical supplies, Plan 2014’s projected maximum level would be 2.4 inches higher than the maximum level under 1958-DD.
This translates into an estimated $2.2 million increase in the annual cost of shoreline protection and maintenance.
South vs. north
The decades-long battle over how Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River flows should be regulated seems to boil down to the classic dilemma: Protect the environment or private property rights?
Fearing greater flood damage to coastal properties and infrastructure, cottage owners, businesses and communities along the southeastern shore of Lake Ontario have been fighting Plan 2014 fiercely.
“I feel like I’ve been shot and stabbed at the same time,” James Jerome, a Sandy Pond cottage owner and outspoken critic of Plan 2014, said in response to IJC’s announcement Tuesday.
For more than 50 years, shoreline property owners like Mr. Jerome have made substantial investments in their waterfront homes and businesses on the assumption that 1958-DD was here to stay.
On the other hand, advocates for Plan 2014 argue that upper-lake and St. Lawrence River communities and wildlife habitats have suffered for more than 60 years to allow properties to be built closer to the shore down south.
“All it does is right the balance,” said D. Lee Willbanks, executive director of Save the River, a Clayton-based environmental advocacy group.
Mr. Jerome said, however, that “it’s not balanced at all” and that the IJC appears to have absolutely no interest in mitigating the damage Plan 2014 would cause to his and his neighbors’ homes.
Commissioner Pollack said that these are legitimate concerns but that “mitigation is not within the IJC’s scope of authority” and that coastal property owners should approach state authorities regarding this matter.
“Before selecting Plan 2014, the Commission considered an exhaustive list of options in order to select the best possible plan to provide significant environmental restoration with overall economic benefits and the smallest increase in damage to any property, infrastructure, shipping or recreational interests,” the IJC said in its report Tuesday.
The biggest winner
Plan 2014 is good news for the region’s ecosystem. But it’s hydropower that has the most to gain financially under the new water management plan.
According to the IJC’s report, hydropower production is projected to see an average annual gain of $5.26 million under Plan 2014.
Pointing to the IJC’s projections as evidence, south shore residents have argued that the “environmentally friendly” aspect of the proposed plan is greatly exaggerated to avert attention from the IJC’s secret intention — which they believe is to create more electricity at the Moses-Saunders dam and the Beauharnois and Les Cedres stations of Hydro Quebec at the outlet of Lake St. Francis.
While it is difficult to put a dollar value on environmental restoration, the IJC argues in its report that “robust coastal ecosystems are in the interests of both countries” and that “Plan 2014 would address much, though not all, of” the damage dealt to the region’s wetlands over time.
No change is expected in commercial navigation.
Commissioner Pollack acknowledged last July that hydropower indeed would benefit the most, but denounced the conspiracy theory.
“This plan wasn’t designed to advantage NYPA (New York Power Authority),” Ms. Pollack said.
Seeking concurrence from the feds
Also part of the IJC’s new proposal is an “adaptive management strategy” that will be funded by the U.S. and Canadian governments to allow the commission to better monitor trends in water supply and evaluate its water regulation plan more frequently.
“Adaptive management will provide insights and prompt recommendations, but once a new to the Order of Approval is approved and Plan 2014 is implemented, changes to the Order and regulation plan will occur only after considerable public consultation and the concurrence of the Governments of the United States and Canada,” the IJC said in its report Tuesday.
While the U.S. and Canadian governments are not bound by a deadline, Commissioner Walker said, the IJC is anticipating them to respond within the next few months.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.