As lake flood damage worsens, previously quiet Canadians emerge as critics of IJC

June 14, 2019 09:11 PM

SODUS POINT, N.Y. (WHEC) -- As homeowners along the south shore of an elevated Lake Ontario braced for a new round of winds bringing the potential for flooding, Canadian communities along the north shore turned up their own call for a rethinking of how lake levels are regulated, and both watched for new signs of possible change from lake managers. 

"Everybody's behind giant sandbag walls," described Sarah Delicate with the Canadian lakeshore community advocacy group, United Shoreline Ontario. "I myself have eight pumps at the ready."

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Delicate's Town of Bowmanville, Ontario, east of Toronto, suffered extensive damage when high lake levels brought floods in 2017, then faced even worse conditions when the lake reached still higher record levels this spring.

"We've had four significant flood events since May 1 and people just cannot live like this," she sighed. "And it's happening all up and down the Lake Ontario shoreline."

Delicate kept a close watch for word on a Friday morning conference-call meeting of the board of the International Joint Commission.

Made up of U.S. and Canadian members, the IJC board creates policies for management of the Great Lakes Basin, including setting targeted water levels for Lake Ontario by controlling outflows through the Moses-Saunders dam on the St. Lawrence River.

Even prior to the 2017 floods that wreaked havoc on both sides of the lake, critics of the IJC had questioned its Plan 2014 protocols for managing lake levels.

Shoreline leaders and advocates warned that Plan 2014's system of "triggers" for letting, or not letting, water out of the lake could cause flooding of lakeshore properties, then complained that the plan ended up doing precisely that when high lake levels inundated homes and businesses in the spring of 2017 and again this year.

Friday's IJC teleconference came after members of the U.S. delegation proposed that the board consider revisiting Plan 2014.

"At least they're talking today. That's a step in the right direction I think," said homeowner David Fagner of Sodus Point.  "Now, hopefully, they'll do something about it and get it lowered back down and we won't have to go through this next year."

Fagner looked gratefully on his new break wall installed after his home on Sodus Bay flooded in 2017, and at the network of makeshift levees, aqua-dams, sandbags and heavy duty pumps which kept his block of Greig Street from being submerged as it had been two years ago.

 As northwest winds pushed water onto lake beaches and up Sodus Bay Friday, Fagner declared that officials from the Village of Sodus Point, to the state of New York, to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, had been much better prepared for high lake levels this year than in 2017.    

Like many in south shore communities like Greece, Sodus Point and Hilton, Fagner called enthusiastically for IJC leaders to discard Plan 2014 and revert to its previous lake management protocols, known as Plan 1958DD.

Such public criticism of the IJC's management had been rarer on Lake Ontario's north shore but became more acute and widespread as the spring of 2019 brought a fresh onslaught from the lake.

"We've known for months the water was rising," Delicate exclaimed. "We've known for months that Lake Erie was above record. This was entirely predictable. And, unfortunately, the water was not let out in the winter because they can only let out what plan 2014 says they can let out."

Delicate spoke out against Plan 2014 shortly after the floods of 2017 and acquired more support this year from local leaders like Brian Ostrander, mayor of Brighton Ontario, another north shore coastal community repeatedly facing flooding this year.  

"Those winds picked up and people who had been mowing their lawns the day before were knee-deep in water!" he said. The crisis prompted Ostrander to write a letter to Pierre Beland, chairman of the Canadian Delegation to the IJC.  

"The cost associated with keeping our residents from being flooded out is extraordinary for a small community like ours," Ostrander's letter read.  "I understand that your US IJC counterpart intends to raise the issue of suspending Plan 2014 in order to reassess the lake levels and flood mitigation along the Lake Ontario shorelines," it went on.  "I respectfully request that you vote in favor of this suspension to allow the IJC to take a hard look at other possible plans."  

Policies like Plan 2014 are the product of years of deliberation and consensus between the U.S. and Canadian delegations to the IJC.

With the American representatives openly discussing suspending Plan 2014, Delicate hoped prodding from weary stakeholders on the north shore, like Ostrander, could move their representatives towards making a change.

"What we are starting to see is a lot of uptake from municipalities that are really feeling like they've been left holding the bag," she explained."They are on the hook for the extreme amount of damage, emergency response, trying to manage very upset and traumatized shoreline residents.  Municipalities are really starting to band together to talk about plan 2014."

Ostrander insisted his skepticism of Plan 2014 did not reject the plan's stated objective of improving lakeshore ecosystems like wetlands but asked for consideration of alternatives that might achieve environmental protection without the devastating human cost already endured by communities like his.

"We would anticipate a 25 year or 50-year flood every 25 or 50 years," he said. "But not every other year! And that's what's happening under plan 2014."


Charles Molineaux

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