WATERTOWN — Despite officials releasing more water from Lake Ontario than at any other time on record, the U.S. chairwoman of the International Joint Commission, which oversees the management of binational waters between the U.S. and Canada, claims it will only lower the height of the lake by centimeters.
Jane Corwin met Friday at the Dulles State Office Building with 30 state, local and government officials from Ontario to discuss the conditions of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, as well as the commission’s work tackling the issue of high waters. State Assemblyman Mark C. Walczyk, R-Watertown, hosted the gathering to help provide more information to local representatives.
The lake remains about 18 inches above the historic average at 246.01 feet. With the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers having predicted that water levels will most likely remain above their normal height for the foreseeable future, some worry they could wreak havoc this year as they did last year and in 2017.
In an effort to help lower it, the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board, which the commission oversees, raised outflows through the Robert Moses-Robert H. Saunders Power Dam in Massena and Cornwall, Ontario, to the highest sustained amount on record at 10,700 cubic meters per second. That equals about 35,000 average sized bathtubs of water leaving the lake each second.
Ms. Corwin, a former state assemblywoman, however, said the “hard pill to swallow” was knowing that no matter what action the river board took, it would only lower the height of Lake Ontario by centimeters, particularly given the record-breaking amount of water flowing into the lake from the upper Great Lakes in recent years.
“If we continue to do what we’re doing, maybe we can get a couple of centimeters off the lake,” she said. “It could help in some areas, but it’s not going to eliminate flooding as a problem. And I know it’s a difficult thing to hear.”
The U.S. chair of the commission described “another tough pill to swallow” while discussing how she wanted to help U.S. and Canadian riparians many of whom experienced flooding homes, submerged docks, closed roads and eroded shores.
While the commission and river board must consider the needs of shoreline homeowners and municipalities in the U.S. and Canada, the joint order from both national governments demand that their actions must not harm other interests, including mariners, hydropower, and water and sewer systems. Ms. Corwin said the order is “a direct conflict” with its responsibilities. The commission expressed its concerns to both federal governments.
“The challenge is prioritization,” she said.
The river board raised outflows in an effort to help lower lake levels after the shipping season ended Dec. 31. The move follows a decision from the commission in November to allow the board to keep deviating from outflow regulations in Plan 2014 until June 2020.
The leeway has been in effect since last May, but extending it will allow the board to, when possible, release more water through the dam at times Plan 2014 would typically not permit.
Plan 2014 has come under scrutiny from riparians and elected officials along both sides of the U.S. and Canada, with some blaming it for the flood. Ms. Corwin, a former opponent of the plant; commission and river board officials, the Nature Conservancy and scientists have defended the plan and blamed the flooding on excessive precipitation and runoff across the basin.
Despite receiving criticism about the plan, Ms. Corwin said the river board has not followed it since May after water levels reached a height that triggered the ability to deviate.
“They can go as high as they deem appropriate,” she said.
Experts from the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management Committee have been undergoing an expedited review of Plan 2014. The federal government allocated $1.5 million in funds for the review last month.
Ms. Corwin said the funds will help the committee execute the full-scale for the study. The study will encompass how water levels and management under the plan affects shipping and municipalities and evaluating “trigger levels,” which define certain actions at specific lake levels. It also includes a survey asking individuals how water levels affected them last year.
The survey can be found at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/YXZ8822
“We would appreciate any opportunity to have a seat at the table,” said Scott A. Gray, chairman of the Jefferson County Board of Legislators, in reference to reviewing Plan 2014.
Some, particularly Save the River, Clayton, had called for an early end to the shipping season so more water could be released from the dam. Town of Alexandria Councilman Ronald G. Thomson said the St. Lawrence Seaway previously closed earlier in the year on Dec. 20, and urged Ms. Corwin to convince the U.S. and Canadian seaway authorities, the St. Lawrence Seaway Development and Management Corporations, respectively, to close earlier, at least for a few years.
“Even if they closed a week early, or two weeks early, it amounted to a centimeter, or two centimeters at the max,” Ms. Corwin said.
The commission has been in discussions with the seaway authorities regarding water level management. Ms. Corwin, however, said obtaining information from them can be challenging, and the commission requested assistance from the U.S. and Canadian governments in facilitating discussions.
“We sometimes need to have additional information. I don’t believe we necessarily get a lot of it in a timely manner,” she said.
In the wake of the recent flooding, Ms. Corwin said residents, communities and other stake holders must bolster the resiliency of their waterfront homes, facilities and infrastructure. She applauded Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Lake Ontario Resiliency and Economic Development Initiative, despite his administration’s lawsuit against the commission.
Mr. Walczyk thank Ms. Corwin for the information she provided, which he said will help him and other local officials address the concerns of their constituents.
“I’m going to continue to advocate for compromises with the shipping industry protecting our shoreline homeowners,” he said, adding that the study of Plan 2014 “to see if there are changes that need to be made and the acting (river) board speaks for itself.”