OSWEGO — As the Lake Ontario shoreline continues to reel from devastating flooding, state and federal officials are working to increase aid to affected residents and assign blame for the calamity.
The first component is uncontroversial. Nearly everyone agrees Lake Ontario businesses and homeowners who sustained damage from rising waters and erosion are entitled to financial and material assistance.
But the question as to who or what should be held responsible for the flooding is a murky area filled with speculation and misinformation.
Some facts in the case are irrefutable: Lake Ontario water levels, starting in January, rose at a rate significantly higher than the 1918-2016 averages and topped historic maximums between May 12 and June 9, according to data from the federal government.
New standards regarding the regulations of the water levels, known commonly as Plan 2014, were also instituted in January.
According to the International Joint Commission (IJC), a dual partnership between the United States and Canada that oversees all the shared waterways between the two nations, Plan 2014 was designed to return the Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River shorelines to a more natural ebb and flow than under the previous plan, in place since the 1950s.
IJC officials estimated Plan 2014 could lead to an increase in lake levels of approximately 2.4 inches. Upon its implementation, the IJC also conceded that annual coastal damage to “shore protection structures, unprotected shorelines and buildings” in the US and Canada under Plan 2014 would run approximately $20 million.
But did the Plan 2014 implementation lead to the calamitous flooding?
Popular opinion and most local elected officials say yes. Scientists say no.
“There is no question that the implementation of Plan 2014 has wreaked havoc in our community,” Congressman John Katko, R-Camillus, said in a press release following a briefing this week with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Army Corps of Engineers.
The briefing also included Congressman Chris Collins, R-Clarence, Congresswoman Claudia Tenney, R-New Hartford, and a litany of local officials who took aim at Plan 2014.
That same release said Plan 2014 had “failed” and that “devastation” was “directly related” to Plan 2014.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has also jumped into the fray, saying the IJC “blew it” and that he “did not support” Plan 2014.
The Palladium-Times made multiple requests this week to both Katko and Tenney’s offices to provide any data they had received from any expert that showed evidence of Plan 2014 as the cause of the flooding.
Both offices were either unwilling or unable to produce such evidence.
The Palladium-Times also reached out to nearly a dozen experts on geology, biology, meteorology, other earth sciences and international law to ask a simple question: Did Plan 2014 cause the flooding?
Without exception the answer came back the same: No, Plan 2014 did not cause the flooding.
“The Plan has absolutely nothing to do with the high lake levels,” said Dr. Douglas Wilcox, professor of Wetland Science at SUNY Brockport. “[Politicians] have gotten really poor information.”
Wilcox instead pointed to the massive amounts of precipitation — the most on record for the months of April and May — throughout the Great Lakes region.
“The water levels in Lake Ontario are going to be dictated partially by how much rainfall occurs in the lake watershed. Plan 2014 has nothing to do with that,” said Wilcox.
A common criticism of the IJC and Plan 2014 is that officials could, and should, have allowed more water to flow out of the Moses-Saunders Power Dam located on the upper St. Lawrence River between the cities of Massena in the United States and Cornwall in Canada.
The reasoning goes: if the IJC had practiced better foresight and allowed water to flow through the dam earlier and at greater levels, the flooding could have been mitigated.
“Despite the prevalence of high water levels in the preceding months due to a myriad of factors, the Army Corps and the IJC failed to let water out of Lake Ontario,” said Erin O’Connor, spokesperson for Katko. ”This has caused flooding and extensive and unprecedented costly damage to shoreline communities.”
That line of thinking is incorrect, according to experts.
Michael Twiss, a Clarkson University professor of biology who also sits on the IJC’s Science Advisory Board, said even if the IJC wanted to increase flow out of the dam in the winter months, they could not without flooding out Massena and Cornwall.
The problem was, again, naturally occurring phenomenon.
January through most of March saw an extended period of ice formation caused by unseasonably and intermittently warm periods in January and February then a colder than normal March.
That led to five cycles of freezing and thawing and caused “inadequate ice cover” to open the dam, said Twiss.
“Without proper ice cover, they can’t start opening up the dam because otherwise all the ice will sweep down stream, plug up the dam, and wash away the towns of Massena and Cornwall,” Twiss said. “They can’t drop the water quickly in the winter without proper ice cover.”
Twiss said when politicians play the blame game for the high lake levels it’s a misguided effort.
“It’s easier to blame when you can direct it at someone managing the system but politicians are not managing the water levels,” Twiss said.
The IJC and its Water Control Board, who meet weekly to analyze lake and river conditions, oversee those lake levels in real-time but can only control so much.
“Water levels are high because the lakes have a very, very large watershed and are affected by not only recent rainfall but also by the amounts of rain and snow received in many winters prior,” Twiss said.
“This is Mother Nature doing her thing that she’s been doing for thousands of years,” said Wilcox, pointing out that even as a historic drought gripped the Great Lakes region last year, Lake Ontario levels were still higher than they would have been under Plan 2014.
“No one expected the extreme rainfall in April and May and Montreal was already flooded so there’s nothing [the IJC] could do,” Wilcox added. “The operation of the water levels through the dam basically followed the same pattern that would have been used in the old regulation plan.”
Officials have also called for changes to be made to Plan 2014 in light of the flooding, but adjusting an international treaty cannot be done with a few strokes of a pen.
Plan 2014 is a part of the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, a document that stipulates neither country will build a project affecting the levels and flows of shared waterways unless approval is granted by both nations.
Scientists and officials worked for more than 15 years to craft Plan 2014 before its ratification last year by IJC commissioners.
The US and Canada each seat three commissioners, although one of the US commissioner spots is currently vacant. Four votes are needed for any action to be taken, so at least one commissioner from each nation must be in favor of the action.
American commissioners serve at the leisure of the President. President Barack Obama appointed the two current commissioners, Lana Pollock and Rich Moy.
If change comes to Plan 2014, it would likely take a full set of new US commissioners, plus convincing at least one of the Canadian commissioners, to reject the plan the commission already spent 15 years forming.
Assemblyman Will Barclay, R-Pulaski, who was an early and vocal opponent of Plan 2014, said he “wouldn’t say the flood is solely because of Plan 2014” and it’s “been an atypical year when it comes to rain and precipitation.”
“I’m not a scientist but did [Plan 2014] have a role in not helping to relieve the [flooding] situation? I think you could make a claim that it did play a little role,” Barclay said, noting that he lives on the Salmon River and hasn’t seen flooding impact the area surrounding that waterway.
Barclay was one of the prime movers on efforts by the state Legislature to provide direct aid to residents and municipalities affected by the flooding.
An original $90 million aid package was approved by state legislators last week but objections from Gov. Andrew Cuomo over its funding and “technical issues” forced lawmakers back to the negotiating table.
That bill created the “Lake Ontario — St. Lawrence Seaway flood relief and recovery and International Joint Commission Plan 2014 mitigation and grant program.”
A revised bill, approved Thursday, cuts that funding to $55 million. All mentions of the IJC and Plan 2014 have been removed.
Collins, Katko and Tenney support diverting some of the IJC’s budget in 2018 to help residents and businesses whose property was damaged by flooding from Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.
That move, according to at least one official, would be unprecedented.
“It’s never happened in the past,” said Frank Bevacqua, spokesman for the IJC.
Bevacqua said compensation to interests in either the US or Canada “that may be harmed by operations directed by the IJC would be handled by domestic agencies under domestic authority.”
“But again, that situation has never arisen,” Bevacqua added. “In this particular year, there are no damages caused by the regulations of outflows as far as the flooding.”
Bevacqua said the flood was a “major coastal event” caused by “natural factors” and it was important to keep a larger picture in mind.
“While we hope we would never see an event like this again, events of this magnitude have occurred in the past and are likely to occur in the future and it’s important to prepare,” Bevacqua said. “Decisions made after this event will be with us for a generation and it’s important we make the coast less vulnerable to this kind of disaster, which would occur under any regulation plan.”