Lake levels discussed at Watertown session

Jane Corwin, U.S. chairwoman of the International Joint Commission, left, discusses her group’s efforts to manage water levels while state Assemblyman Mark Walczyk listens on Friday at the Dulles State Office Building. Marcus Wolf/Watertown Daily Times

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.”

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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(4) comments

Mike from Casar

They are flat out lying, period. Plan 2014 stated purpose was higher water levels for longer sustained periods of time.

Gracie02

Great article, Ms. Corwin does a nice job explaining the enormity of the issue, and what minimal effect we really have on trying to harness mother nature... Past comments by STR and locals thinking this is an issue we're in control off and can just raise and lower the river at our discretion is naïve... So, close the shipping season early, and lower the lake less than the width of a slice of bread.. Again, raise your docks, fix your seawalls...

RiverRat

Gracie, you need to look at all the facts. IJC has just admitted they can let water out at a higher rate than they ever have before. Proof that theoretical scenarios are not always accurate. In previous meetings with the IJC (Dobinsky Ctre, Ogdensburg) they said high outflow models could affect the levels by inches possibly. Combine that with a mild winter so far and the IJC not having to slow outflows down to create ice pack and you would have more inches. Every inch can make a big difference to individuals and businesses. It has become very obvious that shipping has a huge priority over all residential and business property owners on the river and lake.

Gracie02

The "facts" go well beyond our section of the river... "USACE - The mean levels for lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, St. Clair and Ontario were about a foot higher than the same month in 2018, according to the monthly bulletin from the Army Corps' Detroit office." "The levels findings the corps released this week come after the Great Lakes Basin saw its wettest 60-month period ending Aug. 31 in 120 years of record-keeping, according to corps records.".... who cares whether we've had a mild winter so far?? That was the report Friday from the International Lake Superior Board of Control that warned lakeshore residents to “prepare for potentially severe coastal impacts, especially during periods of strong winds and high waves.” "Lake Superior is a whopping 13 inches above its normal Jan. 1 water level and a full 4 inches above the Jan. 1, 2019 level one year ago."..........

RR, the high water isn't coming from here... it's the mid-west and Great Lakes title basin.. Lake Superior alone is larger than all the rest of the Great Lakes Combined..it's the world's largest freshwater lake.. and we think a 10% increase in outflow is going to affect that? I do agree shipping takes priority...as it should..

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