Over the last several weeks, local news media has been consumed by stories about the rising level of water in Lake Ontario. Every night I see some reporter from a television station standing in a pool of water interviewing a homeowner who is doing his or her best to save their lakeside residence. This is great human interest reporting, but what are the facts behind this story? Why is this happening? And what can be done?
If I am to believe what I see and hear, the main culprits are the International Joint Commission and Plan 2014, but what is the International Joint Commission (IJC) and what is Plan 2014? This is why I am grateful for newspapers and the internet.
The IJC has actually been around since 1900 and has six members, three American and three Canadian. Its mission is to “help prevent and resolve disputes about the use and quality of boundary waters and advise Canada and the U.S. on questions about water resources.” Plan 2014 is the current blueprint for managing the water levels of Lake Ontario.
The Commission started working on Plan 2014 in 2000. The idea was to balance the needs of the various stakeholders as best as possible. It had the added element of trying to return the lake to its natural boundaries, and to do that they had to increase the amount of water in the lake. After 14 years of planning and reviewing historical data it was decided to raise the level of the lake by two inches. It was acknowledged that the higher level would result in some additional damage to seawalls, docks, etc., but anyone living on the water will tell you that this is part of the risk.
One thing that was not factored into the Plan 2014 calculation was the change in weather patterns we are experiencing. The last few years have been the wettest on record for the entire Great Lakes Basin, and all of that water is headed for Lake Ontario. Some people are saying the IJC should just “open up the gates” and let the water pour into the St. Lawrence. The problem is that for every inch Ontario is lowered the St. Lawrence goes up 11 inches. How many communities along the St. Lawrence are we willing to destroy to preserve lake property here?
This reminds me of what happened here in the late 1970s. One year we had a lot of snow in the winter and a wet spring. Officials were forced to drain all they could from Keuka Lake into Seneca Lake and tried to drain Seneca into Cayuga. The damage was extensive and everybody blamed everybody else.
Since then, those officials who control all three lakes have been very aware of weather conditions affecting their water levels. But they are very small lakes when compared to Lake Ontario, and there are no international agencies involved, so it is a relatively simple task.
I think that Plan 2014 is getting blame that it does not deserve. It was based on what was good for the lake while recognizing the needs and rights of those living and working in the lake. What it did not do was allow for the “unknown,” which is to say climate change. The historically high amounts of precipitation that have fallen in the Basin area are unprecedented. But it must be dealt with now.
We could pretend it is a temporary condition and repair what has been damaged or we can realize that climate change is a real and long-lasting problem to which we will have to adjust. I think the latter is a more prudent path. Gov. Cuomo has suggested “rebuilding and hardening our communities and infrastructure.” If we follow his advice and are wrong, all that happens is we end up with some great lakefront communities. If we don’t follow his advice and are wrong, we will be rebuilding once again ... and wondering why.