WASHINGTON D.C. — A bipartisan coalition of members of Congress from around New York, representing communities along the Lake Ontario shoreline, are the latest group of elected officials to call for international water regulators to provide coastal property owners with resiliency resources.
U.S. Reps. John Katko, R-Camillus, Anthony Brindisi, D-Utica, and Joseph Morelle, D-Irondequoit, announced Thursday they are urging the International Joint Commission (IJC) — the international organization overseeing shared waterways between the U.S. and Canada — to abide by a provision in the organization’s Lake Ontario water regulation strategy that protects property owners along the shoreline who have experienced devastation caused by flooding.
In a letter to IJC U.S. Section Chair Jane Corwin, the trio of upstate Congressmen called for the IJC to comply with the Supplementary Order of Approval found in Plan 2014 — a plan that dictates Lake Ontario inflows and outflows from the Moses Saunders Dam, located between Massena and Cornwall, Ontario in Canada.
“Water-level regulation procedures authorized under Plan 2014 directly impact the wellbeing of Lake Ontario’s shoreline communities, which have faced historic flooding in two of the three years since Plan 2014 took effect. The resulting devastation has amounted to millions of dollars in damage to shoreline infrastructure, as well as residential and commercial properties,” the Congressmen wrote in their letter.
In the letter the trio of legislators claim the Supplementary Order of Approval states “the responsibility of the IJC to provide suitable and adequate protection and indemnity to interests on either side of the International Boundary that are injured by the maintenance and operation of works laid out in Plan 2014.”
Plan 2014 was enacted in 2017 under the vision of improved ecosystem health and diversity on Lake Ontario and the upper St. Lawrence River, as well as considerations for net economic benefits for both countries. Allowing for more natural variations of water levels, the plan is meant to foster the conditions needed to restore 64,000 acres of coastal wetlands and improve habitat for fish and wildlife, according to the IJC. The plan is also set to frequently extend the recreational boating season.
Lake Ontario water levels peaked at 249.08 feet in June, surpassing the previous record-high water levels of 2017, according to data from the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board (ILOSLRB).
Waters have steadily declined since the end of June, reaching a 2019 low of 246.03 feet Oct. 26 before creeping upward to 246.26 feet on Nov. 6, the most recent data available.
Water levels are currently about 19 inches above average for early November, but roughly 34 inches below the lake’s mid-June high. It’s been more than a year since Lake Ontario water levels fell below the historical average in late October 2018.
“Additionally, the prospect of sustained high-water levels poses an existential threat to the economic health of our shoreline communities, including our local tourism and boating industries,” the congressmen added.
The IJC has repeatedly said no water management plan could have prevented flooding this year, and the organization’s leaders have said heavy precipitation and snow melt led to historically high water supplies flowing into Lake Ontario.
The city of Oswego suffered nearly $15 million in damages to lakeshore properties and infrastructure in 2017, according to local officials, and are recipients of multiple aid programs at both the federal and state levels.
The Congressmen noted they are seeking information regarding a potential redress of the “catastrophic injuries sustained by our communities” since Plan 2014 has been in effect.
The efforts by federal lawmakers to seek retribution on behalf of property owners echo those of state officials who want New York to be compensated for damages suffered by lakeshore property owners.
In October, Gov. Andrew Cuomo directed the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to sue the IJC 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.
"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.”
While there have been no updates on the lawsuit, the state has disbursed $300 million as part of the Lake Ontario Resiliency and Economic Development Initiative (REDI) to counties affected by the high waters to bolster Lake Ontario shoreline resiliency and spur economic development in the region.
The counties of Oswego and Cayuga were the recipient of $43 million in REDI funds and local officials are awaiting the next step in the project-building process.