Lake Ontario flooding: Debate continues over cause

May 31, 2017

Politicians and environmental groups continue to spar over the cause of flooding that's damaging homes and businesses along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.

On Wednesday, several environmental groups criticized N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other politicians for blaming a new lake management plan that took effect in January.

They noted that experts, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, say heavy spring rains triggered the flooding. And they cautioned officials against using the International Joint Commission's Plan 2014 as a scapegoat.

"Scapegoating Plan 2014 is not supported by science, nor does it help New Yorkers," Brian Smith of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said in the groups' statement.

The statement came two days after Cuomo leveled new criticism at the IJC, a bi-national organization that regulates dams on U.S.-Canadian boundary waters. 

"There's no doubt but that the IJC blew it. I mean, they blew it. I don't even see how you can debate that," Cuomo said Monday in the town of Greece.

Cuomo conceded that IJC policies have to consider the impact on a large region, including Montreal.

But he said the IJC has made a "series of blunders." He added, "New Yorkers are getting the short end of the stick, and their homes are getting flooded."

The governor's words echoed those of some local officials and residents along the southern shore of Lake Ontario.

Later, the state's environmental secretary clarified Cuomo's remarks.

Secretary Basil Seggos told North Country Public Radio and Capitol Pressroom that New York feels the IJC didn’t draw down Lake Ontario enough before the flooding started. And he said the IJC isn’t pushing as much water downstream as it could, because it's protecting shipping interests on the St. Lawrence Seaway.

The IJC has repeatedly defended its actions. Increasing outflows from a dam on the St. Lawrence River would have worsened flooding in Montreal, while lowering Lake Ontario by only an inch or so, the IJC says. 

The environmental groups praised Cuomo and the state legislature for helping communities recover from the flooding.

But they defended the new management plan, which allows lake levels to fluctuate in a more natural way.

"Plan 2014 is an environmentally sound and science-based approach for regulating Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River water levels and flows, which promotes the return of wetlands including habitat for threatened species like the Black Tern and Least Bittern," Mike Burger, director of conservation and science at Audubon New York, said in the statement.

The groups said the plan also balances other needs, including hydropower, shipping and recreation.

Meanwhile, high outflows continue at a dam that helps regulate the level of Lake Ontario. 

The Moses-Saunders dam's operating board estimated that to lower Lake Ontario by a foot, outflows would have to be boosted well beyond record levels. It would require an increase of about 25 percent over the highest weekly outflow, officials said in a statement, adding, "we're not even sure how much more the system can handle."