Flood season approaches with lake levels high, no plans for change at IJC

February 19, 2018 02:13 PM

Communities on the shore of Lake Ontario devastated by flooding last spring could face similar conditions and no change in lake level management policies by the International Joint Committee (IJC), which regulates lake levels, even as the Trump Administration planned to replace the U.S. delegation to the IJC.

“There is only so much that can be done,” the IJC’s outgoing U.S. Chair Lana Pollack told News 10 NBC. “We manage the water. We keep the water going as sensibly as possible."

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“It's going to get worse this year,” exclaimed homeowner Tim Ekiert of Greece. “I can almost guarantee it. We're scared."

Ekiert was thankful for the large chucks of ice that accumulated between his home and the lake, calling them valuable protection after high water washed out most of the stone in his break wall.  He anticipated bringing in a contractor to start the rebuilding process within the next few weeks but, with lake levels already about a foot above average, he also looked nervously ahead to a possible new season of high water.

“We’re all planning on it being worse this year and, if does get worse,” he said, “We are going to have to get out. And we’re just very afraid of that.”  

Ekiert also blasted the IJC and its “Plan 2014” for managing lake water levels which many lake shore homeowners blamed for the flooding.

“When they came up with this plan, they didn't care,” he said. “'Oh, it's going to be minimal damage.'  Minimal?  Last year wasn't minimal. Last year was maximum damage.” 

Pollack insisted the flooding was due to an extraordinarily wet spring with high rains and high inflows to the lake, not because of Plan 2014.  She spoke with News 10 NBC as the environmental group Save the River presented her with its “Friend of the River” award in 1000 Islands.  Pollack criticized what she called the “bad politics” of public figures, including politicians, who insist that the IJC could have prevented the flooding and could protect lakeshore homes and businesses from future flooding by controlling lake levels. 

“Bad politics is telling people that changing a plan can save their property,” she said.  “I'm stepping out soon.  The next person, if they expect that person to be the supernatural, to protect the unprotectable. That person is going to be very unpopular. We have to manage expectations.”

Advocates for lakeshore communities like the Lake Ontario Riparian Alliance and the Lake Ontario South Shore Council (L.O.S.S.) insisted that, in formulating Plan 2014, the IJC deliberately placed a lower priority on the people who live on the lake. 

“Plan 2014 went into place as an effort to adjust lakeshore regulation to favor favorite environmental interests,” said Henry Stewart, President of L.O.S.S.  “I think it’s a criminal what they’ve done,” he continued.  “They knew that the south shore was going to be damaged, and badly.”

Stewart also dismissed contentions that it was unrealistic to expect that the IJC could protect homes on the lake by more tightly controlling water levels.  

“I think it’s absolutely realistic to say that it can protect it because, under the prior plan of 60 years, there was not anywhere near this type of damage,” he said.

IJC consultant Bill Weric joined Pollack in warning that the IJC’s hands were further tied by ice on the St Lawrence River where a rapid drop in water levels could break up an ice sheet and create ice jams.  

“That can cause flooding above the ice,” Weric said.  “As that breaks up, that will go down and scour and destroy the river."

"While that does play a role at certain times," Stewart countered, "they could have been sending more water through at previous times; back in the fall, and on forward to December before the formation of the ice floes."  

But preemptive drawing down of the lake, Weric said, raised environmental concerns.  

“When you do that, that also means that levels will be lower in the spring,” he said. “That will reduce the productivity of the lake Ontario wetlands.  That's bad for species like several species of birds that are listed as 'at risk.' So there's a tradeoff." 

The IJC is made up of three U.S. and three Canadian representatives.   The three U.S. members, including Pollack, formally tendered their resignations in December but remained on the commission awaiting replacement.

New York Congressman Chris Collins told News 10 NBC that three replacements had been selected but had not formally been announced by the White House.

Pollack offered some advice for her successor.  

“Listen to the people,” she said.  “Listen to the scientists. Listen to the hydrologists. Work with the governments. Encourage people to be realistic. And discourage overpromising." 

Stewart urged lakeshore communities to remain diligent in advocacy “That that interest level has to stay strong,” he said.  “Public advocacy and grassroots advocacy has to stay strong because these governmental regulators may think that we’re just going to go away and they can slip things through.”

“People’s expectations, I think, are very reasonable and very fair,” he continued.  “We aren’t asking for a greater priority than the other interests. We’re just asking not to be neglected.”


Charles Molineaux

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