OSWEGO — While international regulators say “everything possible” is being done to provide “all possible relief” to Lake Ontario and upper St. Lawrence River residents, city officials are calling on regulators to scrap the current water management plan.
The Oswego Common Council approved a resolution Monday calling Plan 2014 — the Lake Ontario water management plan adopted in 2016 by the International Joint Commission (IJC), which regulates shared waterways between the U.S. and Canada — the “direct culprit” of lakeshore flooding, and asking the commission to suspend the plan until another plan could be implemented.
“It is now the end of June and we have yet to see any relief from the high water levels and associated flooding,” said Mayor Billy Barlow, noting the city suffered more than $7 million of damage in 2017 that is now being compounded as waters rise again. “The IJC said we would peak in the middle of June and the truth is our levels, at least in (Wright’s Landing) Marina, seem to be higher now than ever.”
Lake Ontario reached record highs in 2017 following the IJC’s adoption of Plan 2014, and two years later those records have been surpassed. 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 Lake Ontario water levels at 249.05 feet — just shy of the 249.08 feet record set in early June.
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.
“They also need to admit the plan is causing more harm than they initially though it would and should suspend it immediately while they draft a new plan that doesn’t cause as much damage and destruction,” the mayor said. “Or simply go back to the previous plan that worked fine for debates.”
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.
Speaking before the common council Monday, Barlow said the IJC should be capable of fulfilling the goals of Plan 2014, which included restoring wetland habitats, without flooding shoreline communities.
"While maybe the intent of Plan 2014 is fine, the fact is the negative impact and the devastation that has occurred since then I don't believe is acceptable," the mayor said. "I don't think they saw this sort of devastation coming, and they need to continue to let more water out of the dam and work on maybe amending or fixing Plan 2014 so that it will still achieve those objectives without the devastation that we're seeing."
Barlow said the city has been patient and put resources into building back the waterfront and mitigating the impacts of flooding, including adjustments at Wright's Landing Marina, but "at this point" officials must stand up and tell the IJC it's time to reexamine the water management strategy.
The IJC in a statement Monday said ILOSLRB is “doing everything possible to provide all possible relief to Lake Ontario and upper St. Lawrence River residents” while considering impacts throughout the system.
IJC officials noted the ILOSLRB is currently operating under Criterion H14, which directs the board to provide all possible relief to shoreline communities both upstream and downstream, and gives the board authority to deviate from Plan 2014’s specified flows.
ILOSLRB officials decided in a June 21 meeting to maintain outflows at the Moses-Saunders Dam at the current record-high level of 367,270 cubic feet per second for the next week. The situation is made more challenging by downstream flooding near Montreal and Lake St. Louis, according to the board.
ILOSLRB said significant precipitation over the last few days throughout the system increased Ottawa River flows into the lower St. Lawrence, causing water levels on Lake St. Louis to approach significant flooding levels.
“Even with high outflows, it is expected that Lake Ontario will remain stable or decline slowly for the next several weeks,” the board said in a statement. “The board continues to seek any opportunity to lower Lake Ontario faster than what is presently possible, and will be meeting again this week to review its regulation strategy.”
Councilor Susan McBrearty, D-1st Ward, voted in favor of the measure, but pointed out officials must recognize there are other factors contributing to high waters on Lake Ontario. McBrearty said the waterfront is a major economic driver for the area and the devastation has been "unbelievable," but called the flooding and high water "a very complicated situation."
"We need to accept that it's not just one thing," she said. "While it's important to call on the IJC to make changes, I'd like to see more focus on getting ready for the new normal."
Barlow conceded the heavy rainfall this season has contributed to the flooding and high water, but said Plan 2014 has exacerbated the flooding and kept Lake Ontario waters high.
"It's been a wet year and certainly the amount of rain is contributing to the high lake levels, but we've had wet years before and never had to close Wright's Landing Marina and never suffered $7 million of damage," the mayor said. "So the main culprit is Plan 2014, and I don't believe that the IJC, or anyone for that matter, were under the impression it was going to be this high and cause this much damage."
Council President Rob Corradino, R-7th Ward, said in his entire 60-plus years living in the area Lake Ontario water levels have never been this high for a sustained period of time, which leads him to believe "there is definitely something going on."
"Two out of the last three years we've had extremely high waters and I don't believe in coincidences," Corradino said. "We're not happy with the current plan and they need to take a look."
Officials from both parties and all levels of government have panned Plan 2014 and criticized the IJC in recent weeks, including Democratic Senator Charles Schumer, Republican Congressman John Katko and Barlow, who were joined by members of the common council Monday.
Barlow said city officials have been patient and understanding for three years while working around the negative impacts of Plan 2014. High water levels, however, have been sustained for so long, Barlow said the damage is compounding.
“There is absolutely no excuse, no scenario where this should be acceptable to anyone despite whatever the intentions of Plan 2014 were,” Barlow said, calling on the IJC to “admit this is worse than you expected and change it.”
Schumer last week said “Plan 2014 is not working,” and called on the IJC to reexamine the plan “from top to bottom so it works” during a visit to Fair Haven.
“It is a mess and should not stand as it is,” the Senate Minority Leader said last week. “We’ve had two huge floods in three years so something is very wrong.”
Earlier this month in Oswego, Katko slammed the water management plan speaking at an economic development awards ceremony.
“Since Plan 2014 came into existence there has been flooding two out of the three years at a catastrophic level, and we damn near missed it last year,” the congressman said. “People are trying to blame it on the bad weather, yeah there’s bad weather, but still Plan 2014 has absolutely exacerbated it.”
Barlow said the city of Oswego did not have shoreline flooding in the marina prior to 2017 and 2019, both of which came following the implementation of Plan 2014 in 2016.
“Either that is a phenomenal coincidence or the flooding is due directly to Plan 2014,” the mayor said. “The significant amount of rainfall certainly doesn’t help, but to use the rainfall to disguise the disgusting effects of Plan 2014 is absurd.”
In an e-mail to The Palladium-Times earlier this month, Commissioner Robert Sisson expressed concern and empathy for the families, businesses and municipalities along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, but pointed to a June 10 Washington Post story noting the U.S. just experienced the wettest 12 months in history.
Sisson, who emphasized he could not and does not speak for the IJC or his fellow commissioners, also noted top climate scientists have been forecasting precipitation would increase by 30 percent in the Great Lakes basin, and said he was “very interested” in whether the science used to develop Plan 2014 anticipated the accelerated impacts of climate change.
“All six commissioners were appointed or confirmed just as water levels peaked and we’re working diligently to gather facts, data and better understand the management plan,” Sisson said.
A spokesperson for the IJC said Monday current data indicate “heavy precipitation across the entire Great Lakes basin is the primary cause for the current conditions in Lake Ontario,” and resulted in record inflows from the Ottawa River into the St. Lawrence River.
The IJC spokesperson pointed out some portions of the lake have experienced above-normal precipitation since last year, and areas surrounding the upper Great Lakes, including Lake Erie, have seen “widespread, heavy precipitation for several months, driven by the remnants of storms that have caused flooding in the south and central United States.”
“This has led to rapidly rising water levels across the Great Lakes as a whole, resulting in water levels not seen since the mid-1980s,” the IJC said. “A combination of these weather conditions and inflows from Lake Erie are the causes for Lake Ontario’s total inflows being as high as they are.”
Looking back to 2017 flooding, the IJC said an “after-action evaluation” concluded wet weather that started in January and became more extreme in April and May was the primary cause of flooding. The commission said the extremely wet weather combined with “unusually high inflows from the Ottawa River and unusual ice-formation issues on the St. Lawrence River due to temperature fluctuations that required temporary reductions in outflows.”
Shoreline property owners and elected officials have said the IJC should suspend Plan 2014 and return to the previous water management document, known as Plan1958-D, while an updated plan is considered. 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 declined to speculate on how long it might take to design a replacement for Plan 2014.
The IJC spokesperson said the commission is “constantly evaluating” the efficacy of its regulation plans.
IJC commissioners, who were confirmed earlier this year after the board sat largely vacant for nearly a year, are scheduled to formally meet July 10-12.