Shoreline residents won’t go with flow on Lake Ontario plan
A U.S. and Canadian agency is developing a new way to manage water levels and flows in Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.
Not all waterfront property owners are happy about it.
Residents on the lake’s south shore fear that the plan’s reliance on more natural water levels and flows can cause more floods and erosion. Supporters of the new method, mainly on the north side of the lake, say the change is necessary to restore wildlife habitat.
The International Joint Commission held hearings on the plan in Washington D.C this month. It is continuing to collect online public comments through Friday.
For more then 50 years the commission that oversees U.S. and Canadian policy on waters the countries share has
managed water levels and flows with the Moses-Saunders hydropower dam at the border between Massena, N.Y. and Cornwall, Ontario.
Decades of scientific study show that the water regulation harmed the environment and coastal wetlands by eliminating wildlife habitat, said Frank Bevacqua, public information officer for the commission.
In 2007, the commission proposed a more environmentally friendly plan that supported a more natural fluctuation of the water levels. Critics said it neglected other environmental and recreation boating interests.
“Plan BV7, is the seventh version of this plan that is meant to balance the needs of all interests,” Bevacqua said.
The plan considers impacts to the environment, shoreline communities, boating and the restoration of the coastal ecosystem, he said. Water levels will be allowed to fluctuate naturally, but they will be controlled in case of emergency to prevent flooding or low water.
Some environmental groups say it’s an important change.
“(The) ecosystem is important for communities that rely on Lake Ontario for the health, the economy, drinking water and tourism,” said Jennifer Caddick, executive director of Save the River in Clayton, N.Y. “This plan is a significant investment in our lake’s restoration.”
Others disagree. Some members of communities on the U.S. shore of Lake Ontario, such as Sodus Bay and Rochester, N.Y., worry that the more natural water fluctuation will damage their property, beaches and businesses.
“It is very difficult for me to agree with this plan,” said Maxine Appleby, a Sodus Bay resident. “I feel like I am betraying the environment.”
Last year storms and severe winds raised the level of the water and broke about 25 trees that had bird nests, Appleby said.
“About a dozen of the birds didn’t survive in the increased water,” she said. “I can’t even imagine if the water will be even higher. We’ll start losing not only habitat but our properties.”
The commission’s study of the water’s natural flow into the lake shows that the lowest water level in the summertime is 245 feet above sea level, which is considered low for boating by south shoreline communities. The highest level would be 248.5 feet.
Most people along the south shoreline of Lake Ontario have lived there for generations, Appleby said. Not everyone is wealthy enough to cover the damage and protection costs.
Under the proposed plan, the cost of maintaining protection (such as breakwalls) could climb due to increased erosion risks, according to the commission.
The south shore of the Lake Ontario is sandy and vulnerable to more erosion and flood damage. The northern shore along Canada is rocky and less at risk.
“Nobody is against the restoration of wetlands,” Appleby said. “If they want to find a solution, then go back and bring us a balanced plan.”
The new plan is expected to increase spring water levels by 2.4 inches, summer levels by 1.2 inches and fall levels by 2 inches, according to the commission’s study.
But south shoreline community members don’t trust the data, Appleby said.
The environmntal group Save our Sodus collected about 1,700 signatures on a petition opposing the plan.
“It is difficult to predict any precise water level,” said Ed Leroux, president of the group. “Considering the damage we had in the past with a small increase in water level, this plan will put us in more difficult position.”
Millions of dollars are going through the south shoreline of Lake Ontario because of local business and tourism, he said. “Uncontrolled water levels will be a constant threat to overall economic and environmental sustainability of our region.”
The issue is complex, Bevacqua said. ”We are committed to make the right decision considering all public comments.”
People can comment online through Friday at the International Joint Commission website.