WASHINGTON, D.C. – A yearlong review of the Lake Ontario water management strategy known as Plan 2014 criticized international regulators’ communications plan and called for a more formal process to assess and potentially adjust the water management protocols.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) was asked to examine the process the International Joint Commission (IJC) — the U.S.-Canadian body that oversees shared waterways between the two nations — used to develop and evaluate Plan 2014, in addition to how the agency has addressed stakeholder concerns. GAO officials said they reviewed Plan 2014 and other IJC documents, interviewed agency and other federal officials and a sample of 14 stakeholders representing a variety of interests.
Issued last week, the report is titled “Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Plan, Improved Communication and Adaptive Management Strategy Could Help Address Stakeholder Concerns.” It focuses largely on the need for improved public communication from the IJC. The report notes a majority of the stakeholders interviewed expressed concern with the implementation of the plan, and the inability of IJC officials to “act proactively in anticipation of future water conditions.”
Water levels across the Great Lakes have been at or near record highs in recent years, and the Lake Ontario shoreline experienced significant flooding in 2017 and 2019. Lake Ontario reached a more than 100-year high of 249.09 feet in early and mid-June last year after setting a previous record high of 248.92 feet in mid-May 2017.
Some shoreline property owners and elected officials have criticized the IJC and Plan 2014, which went into effect in January 2017. It dictates, along with many other responsibilities, the outflows from Lake Ontario through the Moses-Saunders Dam. The dam is the only way for water to flow out of the Great Lakes and through the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Atlantic Ocean.
Lake Ontario waters have receded significantly throughout 2020 after two of the last three years saw dangerously high water levels. Water levels at last measurement were 246.52 feet on July 26, or about 5.5 inches above average for this time of year. Prior to this month, the last time Lake Ontario water levels were within 6 inches of average was late 2018.
Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, who requested the GAO reviews, called on the IJC to immediately take up the recommendations in the report. Schumer and Gillibrand noted the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Adaptive Management (GLAM) will also conduct a review expected to take up to two years. The GLAM review is aimed at improving Plan 2014, and the GAO recommendations should be incorporated into that review, the Senators said.
“After Lake Ontario communities experienced record flooding in 2017 and again in 2019, it’s clear that Plan 2014 is in need of a major overhaul,” Schumer said. “The issues caused by sky-high water levels in Lake Ontario, like severe flooding and damages costing millions of dollars, must not be allowed to terrorize the surrounding communities year after year. Especially with the hardships that New York has already experienced this year due to the COVID-19 crisis, we must act now to protect vulnerable communities along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.”
In a joint letter to chair of the American IJC delegation Jane Corwin, Schumer and Gillibrand said it is “critical” the IJC have robust plans in place for stakeholder communications, in addition to assessing and making potential changes to Plan 2014.
“Communities along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River know too well how necessary it is to implement the new recommendations from GAO,” Gillibrand said. “In recent years, shoreline communities have been plagued by record setting flooding and it’s critical that the IJC immediately incorporate these recommendations into overhaul analysis of Plan 2014.”
Following publication of the GAO report, U.S. Reps. John Katko, R-Camillus, and Anthony Brindisi, D-Utica, who have both been outspoken critics of the IJC, issued a statement calling for more accountability and transparency from regulators.
“We’ve heard from the communities across the region and we agree: Plan 2014 is broken,” reads the statement. Rep. Joseph Morelle, D-Irondequoit, also signed on to the statement. “It is important that the IJC take this GAO report seriously and follow its recommendations—but more action is necessary. The IJC needs to take substantive steps to protect Lake Ontario’s southern shoreline, listen to our communities, and act in a transparent way to ensure fairness and safety in our region.”
The trio of congressmen vowed to continue fighting for the families, businesses and homeowners “that continue to pay the price for the IJC’s inaction.”
The GAO report noted the IJC’s process for developing and selecting Plan 2014 was “generally consistent with relevant elements of risk-informed decision making.” An 18-year process defined objectives and performance measures, in addition to assessing uncertainties like climate change and engaging with various stakeholders in crafting Plan 2014.
The report makes three recommendations to the IJC, including that U.S. and Canadian commissioners update the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board (LOSLRB) — the arm of the IJC that oversees Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River system — communication plan and ensure it incorporates best practices. GAO recommended defining target audiences and developing ways to monitor and inform adjustment to strategies.
In response to the recommendation, the IJC consulted with a communications expert and intends to develop an updated communications plan that incorporates best practices by the end of the year.
The IJC noted, however, establishing and sustaining trust within shoreline communities is a larger, ongoing challenge.
“When inflows are as high as they were in 2017 and 2019, flooding of communities cannot be avoided, and outflow decisions will need to balance the impacts among affected stakeholders,” the IJC said in a response letter, signed by U.S. Chair Jane Corwin and Canadian Chair Pierre Beland. “Historically, leaders of stakeholder organizations and elected officials have blamed the IJC for any flooding that occurs.”
GAO also said commissioners should develop and enter into written agreements with entities that the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management (GLAM) Committee, which is reviewing Plan 2014, identifies as having information or resources the committee needs to effectively monitor and evaluate the impacts of the water management plan.
IJC officials said the agency earlier this year agreed to a written protocol with the St. Lawrence Seaway entities “to share information regarding the economic impacts of extreme water levels and flows on their interest.” The IJC is currently compiling a list of additional entities and will explore formal data and information sharing arrangements with them, the agency said in response to the GAO report.
Another recommendation from GAO is that commissioners should ensure IJC “fully incorporates the key elements and essential characteristics of the adaptive management process into a comprehensive adaptive management strategic plan for Plan 2014.”
The IJC said the GLAM Committee has started revising the adaptive management strategic plan, but noted the review was stalled until December 2019 due to lack of funding and funding for future review is uncertain.