CLAYTON — On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Elise M. Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, visited Save the River for a roundtable with local government officials, environmental experts and business owners to learn more about the ongoing challenges of high water levels along the St. Lawrence River.
“This is really a chance for me to hear different perspectives,” Ms. Stefanik said to participants, moments after stepping off a boat tour of the river. “It’s a complex issue, but this is really a chance for me to hear from stakeholders.”
Ms. Stefanik said she was working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide assistance, if necessary, and hoped to provide additional funding for infrastructure along the river.
“I think Congress needs to step up to appropriate funds for shoreline resiliency,” she said.
There is little that Ms. Stefanik or any other elected official can do about the water level, which is regulated by the International Joint Commission, a binational organization for the great lakes. Locally, it is regulated by the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board.
Thomas E. Brown, a river board member from Cape Vincent, laid out a brief history of the current management system, Plan 2014, to give attendees a sense of why the river is being managed the way it is. Mr. Brown said that Plan 2014, which replaced Plan 1958-D, was begun in the 1980s to address issues not only of power generation but also wildlife and habitat management.
“What was changed was the acknowledgement of the importance of natural water level variance,” Mr. Brown said. “We’re only talking a few inches difference, so it really shouldn’t make an awful lot of difference on the low side, but it will make a pretty good difference during the wet years.”
Allowing for slightly higher and lower water levels, Mr. Brown said, should create better environmental conditions for fish. Jeffrey T. Garnsey, owner of Classic Island Cruises in Clayton and president of Save the River said the environmental benefits of Plan 2014 were easy to see in growing fish populations.
“The difference has been so sudden and so profound, especially with cold water spawners,” he said.
Bass tournaments used to be three-day affairs; now he said people are coming for week-long competitions, and bringing their families along.
Ronald G. Thomson, who owns Uncle Sam Boat Tours, agreed.
“What he have is a river that needs to be kept healthy,” Mr. Thomson said.
The water levels are challenging, he said, but the greater danger was a perception that the river was so high it was closing businesses and stopping recreation.
“It’s tough,” he said. “But right now we’re fighting a perception that the river was flooded.”
Ms. Stefanik said hearing from local businesses was particularly useful.
“Every time I visit the river I hear different perspectives,” she said after. “The impact to the fisheries and the fact that bass tournaments are now longer, and what that means for the overall economy, for the hotels, for the restaurants, for Main Street — that’s important, and that’s very specific knowledge I gained today.”
Despite the general favorable feelings around the table towards Plan 2014, Ms. Stefanik said she wanted to be sure that property owners who have seen high water damage property were heard, a point she re-iterated after the meeting as well.
“Flooding is incredibly important to address,” she said. “These are private property owners, these are people that we want to make sure we are supporting ... (by) looking for opportunities for the Army Corp of Engineers to harden the shoreline, and also making sure that the IJC is hearing their concerns.”
St. Lawrence County Planning Director Keith Zimmerman said that federal funding ought to come with incentives to build for the next flood, not simply repair the damage from this one.
“There really ought to be an incentive to build smarter,” he said. “Things are changing.”
One issue that several local officials raised with federal funding was that FEMA reimbursements were limited.
Town of Alexandria Supervisor Brent H. Sweet said after 2017, they were only able to be reimbursed for overtime pay, which were relatively minor, without compensation for other resources of time and energy dedicated to sandbagging.
“We will check to see if they updated that,” Ms. Stefanik said, and said her staff would look into both this year and 2017.
Several officials raised the issue that FEMA often required an engineering study that cost more than the aid provided. County Legislator Robert W. Cantwell III said Cape Vincent had spent $30,000 on an engineering report to receive $17,000 in aid so far, and Mr. Sweet said the village of Alexandria Bay had a similar situation.
“Same thing happened to us,” said Clayton Mayor Norma J. Zimmer.
Ms. Stefanik said her staff would look into the issue, along with several other case work issues related to FEMA and a request for new flood maps of the St. Lawrence river.
No money will come through until FEMA receives a request from the state for a disaster declaration and determines whether the damage meets federal standard. On Wednesday, U.S. Senators Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-NY, called for FEMA to stand by and respond quickly if such a request came through.
Ms. Stefanik wrapped up by reiterating the importance of hearing from riverfront residents and working on mitigation.
“The purpose of today was to make sure various stakeholders, local electeds, board members of the IJC, property owners whose property has been impacted by the water levels, that we had an opportunity to get together and see what we can do to support our property owners,” she said.