ALBANY — New York state is aiming to sue the binational agency tasked with regulating Lake Ontario water levels, alleging the organization failed to protect shoreline property owners.
In a Wednesday announcement, Cuomo directed the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to sue the International Joint Commission (IJC) — the agency that oversees shared U.S.-Canadian waterways — for mismanagement allegedly leading to severe flooding and shoreline devastation, with “more than $4 million” in property damage the state has not been able to fully repair. Lake Ontario water levels reached record highs in June, surpassing the previous records set just two years earlier in May 2017.
"The facts of the matter are plain: The IJC's function is to manage the Lake Ontario water levels, and they failed — period,” Cuomo said in a statement. “They have been wholly unresponsive and have taken no action to make the situation better.”
According to Wednesday’s statement, the state plans to argue the IJC “breached its duty” by “failing to take sufficient steps” to protect property owners along the Great Lake’s shoreline by not releasing the necessary water outflows from the Moses Saunders Dam, the structure that regulates Lake Ontario inflows and outflows between Canada and the U.S and is located between Massena and Cornwall, Ontario in Canada.
Cuomo added the Empire State should not have to foot the bill for havoc caused along the shoreline when it derives from the IJC’s “gross mismanagement” of Lake Ontario water levels.
“The IJC needs to compensate New York for the severe damage to the homes and businesses along the shoreline,” he said. “That's what this lawsuit is all about."
Cuomo said he submitted a letter to the IJC on June 8 requesting the organization reimburse the state for damage repair costs. The request also included the IJC make additional funds available for resiliency and rebuilding projects.
In 2017, the state laid out a plan to rebuild shoreline communities that totaled $117 million in aid to affected localities. The city of Oswego suffered nearly $15 million in damages to lakeshore properties and infrastructure, according to local officials, and has since requested more aid due to new record-high water levels established this year.
Earlier this year, Cuomo established the Lake Ontario Resiliency and Economic Development Initiative (REDI), which makes $300 million in state funds available to counties and regions affected by the high water levels for commercially focused enhancements, as well as promoting preventive measures that could help mitigate future flood damage.
Elected officials representing Oswego County at all levels of government have long signaled Plan 2014, the current water regulation strategy implemented by the IJC, as a cause for the historically- high water levels and praised the state for taking action on behalf of affected property owners.
"Plan 2014 has had such a devastating impact on property owners along Lake Ontario,” said Assemblyman Will Barclay, R-Pulaski. “ I support all efforts to repeal the plan and I appreciate the governor bringing the lawsuit on behalf of everyone whose homes and businesses have been so deeply affected by this disaster."
Oswego Mayor Billy Barlow applauded Cuomo's actions Wednesday, saying he appreciated the governor's continued focus on the high water levels and the IJC.
"The IJC has continued to be ignorant to the fact that their plan — that they continue to defend and justify — has caused and will continue to cause so much unnecessary damage and negatively impact the lives of thousands of New Yorkers," Barlow said. "I believe Gov. Cuomo, and all of New York, has given the IJC the opportunity to do the right thing and right the wrongs with Plan 2014. They have yet to take serious action, continue to talk out of both sides of their mouth, and must be held accountable.”
U.S. Rep. Anthony Brindisi, who represents the northern part of Oswego County, told The Palladium-Times Wednesday his constituents have reached a “breaking point” due to “inaction” from the IJC in addressing the high waters.
“This lawsuit is a good start and I also encourage the Trump Administration to get involved,” Brindisi, D-Utica, said. “We cannot allow the IJC's inaction to continue to threaten businesses and homes along our shores. Enough is enough. I am ready to work with anyone, Democrat, Republican, Independent, to hold the IJC accountable and find a better plan to prevent and mitigate flooding.”
The Palladium-Times reached out to the IJC for comment Wednesday and a spokesperson said the commissioner is aware of Cuomo’s announcement but had not received formal notice of any legal action that may have been taken. The spokesperson said the commission would not be debating the merits of the lawsuit at this time.
It’s unclear in what court or jurisdiction the state would file the proposed lawsuit.