OSWEGO — High water and flooding has devastated businesses and homeowners up and down the Lake Ontario shoreline this year, and local municipalities are blaming Plan 2014, the water management strategy put in place in 2016, and calling on international regulators to go back to the previous management plan.
The county Government, Courts and Consumer Affairs Committee unanimously approved a resolution calling on the International Joint Commission (IJC) — the bi-national body that oversees shared waterways between the U.S. and Canada — to repeal Plan 2014, which was put in place three years ago in an effort to protect against extreme water levels, restore wetlands and prepare for climate change.
The resolution, which still requires the approval of the full county Legislature, calls on the IJC to repeal Plan 2014 and reinstate the previous water management strategy, known as Plan 1958-DD, to put “an immediate stop to the unnecessary, catastrophic flooding of Lake Ontario.”
Oswego County officials noted in 53 years under Plan 1958-DD, which was enacted in 1964, significant flooding occurred on two occasions in 1973 and 1993. Flooding has occurred twice in the past three years since Plan 2014 was put in place, and local officials do not believe it’s a coincidence.
Oswego County Legislature Chairman James Weatherup, R-Central Square, pointed to portions of Plan 2014 that state “consistent with other requirements” Lake Ontario water levels should be regulated “for the benefit of property owners.”
“My perception is that’s not true,” Weatherup told members of the IJC at a June meeting.
In another portion of the plan, Weatherup noted, it states “in the event that Lake Ontario water levels reach or exceed extremely high levels,” operations should “provide all possible relief to the riparian owners upstream and downstream.”
“My perception is that’s not happening either,” Weatherup said, later adding the plan referenced potential damages to shoreline infrastructure but offered no funding for repairs or mitigation measures.
Lake Ontario reached record highs in 2017 following the IJC’s adoption of Plan 2014, and those records were surpassed in June when the lake reached 249.08 feet. The most recent data from the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board (ILOSLRB), which is overseen by the IJC and dictates outflows from Lake Ontario through the Moses-Saunders Dam, placed the water level at 248.98 feet on July 1.
Plan 2014 was adopted by the IJC in 2016, and at the time officials said it was designed to protect against extreme water levels, restore wetlands and prepare for climate change. The IJC said the plan would return "more natural variations of water levels" to Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River that were necessary to restore ecosystem health, which was not considered in the previous plan when decisions were made to "artificially compress the natural variability of levels" on Lake Ontario.
The county’s resolution notes business owners, residents and waterfront properties have “suffered severe damages due to flooding caused by IJC Plan 2014.” The resolution points out no compensation or mitigation for flood damages was included in plan, which the county claims runs contrary to the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 that created the IJC.
“Plan 2014 imposes immeasurable hardship on our Oswego County towns and villages during times of both high and low water by creating great economic hardship, flooding our homes, destroying our infrastructure, eroding our lakeshore properties and compromising public health and public safety,” the county resolution states, adding the plan “forces unreasonable and unacceptable changes to Lake Ontario’s traditional water levels.”
County officials said Plan 2014 has “failed to accomplish its mission” and the resulting extreme flooding has caused devastation to the natural fish and wildlife habitats.
Members of the IJC recently committed to reviewing the plan and potentially making alterations, and said it was unlikely the plan, which was developed over more than 15 years, would be annulled.
Legislator Tom Drumm, D-Oswego, said lakeshore homeowners have made their desires clear in asking for a repeal of the plan if possible, but cautioned other legislators to speak about the potential repeal of Plan 2014 in a “realistic way.”
“We cannot give folks false hope,” Drumm said. “Repealing this plan is a bureaucratic nightmare and we need to be honest with people about that. Amending the plan has been done in the past and in my opinion has the chance to be more feasible.”
Legislator Ed Gilson, R-Pulaski, conceded it was “a stretch” to believe the IJC would rescind Plan 2014, but said officials need to continue to pressure the commission and keep the issue in the public.
“If we don’t speak loud enough and often enough, I don’t think we’ll be heard,” Gilson said this week. “We need to keep this in front of (the IJC).”
Local officials have continually pointed to Plan 2014 as the cause of the lakeshore flooding experienced in 2017 and again this year, and said the IJC should have let more water flow out of the Moses-Saunders Dam early in the year prior to the flooding.
The IJC, however, maintains heavy rainfall and snowmelt in recent years has brought more water into the lake than the Moses-Saunders Dam can release without flooding communities along the St. Lawrence River, which have also experienced flooding in 2019. U.S. IJC Chairwoman Jane Corwin said letting more water out of the dam earlier this year was not an option due to downstream flooding near Montreal.
Canadian IJC Chair Pierre Béland said “no plan” is capable of managing the current water levels in Lake Ontario. Béland pointed out the other Great Lakes, which all eventually flow into Lake Ontario, are at or near record highs due to historically high levels of precipitation in the Great Lakes basin.
“No plan could have done anything for a lake with such high supplies,” he said, noting there’s more water flowing into Lake Ontario than could be released through the dam.
Earlier this month, the city of Oswego and Wayne County were among the other municipalities calling on the IJC to repeal the often-maligned Plan 2014.
The Oswego Common Council unanimously approved the measure, calling Plan 2014 the “direct culprit” in lakeshore flooding and asking the commission to suspend the plan until another could be implemented.
Mayor Billy Barlow said the IJC must increase outflows and take notice of the amount of damage and devastation high waters are causing along the Lake Ontario shoreline. Barlow said the IJC must admit the plan is causing more harm than initially thought and draft a new plan or revert to the previous management strategy.
Plan 2014 was developed over 16 years, and involved an extensive review of alternative plans, scientific study, public engagement and meetings, and discussions with local governments, according to the IJC.
IJC officials last month declined to speculate on how long it might take to design a replacement for Plan 2014.