BY MARY ESCH
Four months after an international body approved a new plan for regulating Lake Ontario’s water level, property owners who had claimed the rules favored muskrat lodges over lakeside homes are piling sandbags against just the kind of floodwaters they had feared.
But a joint U.S.-Canadian commission says its new rules aren’t to blame for the waves crashing over breakwalls and flooding hundreds of properties along the lake’s southern and eastern shores. It contends the lake is at its highest level in 24 years, roughly 20 inches above average, because of near-record spring rains.
“It’s the perfect storm, between the heavy spring rains and the new plan,” said Chris Tertinek, the Republican mayor of Sodus Point, a village of 1,200 people on Lake Ontario’s southern shore, 30 miles east of Rochester. “All the property owners are worried about property value. We’re worried the sewage system will flood and we’ll have to shut down the village.”
Republican politicians who had lobbied against the regulations known as Plan 2014 are now calling on President Donald Trump to roll back the rules, which were promoted by environmentalists and adopted by the International Joint Commission in December after 16 years of study and discussion.
Frank Bevacqua, a spokesman for the commission, said lake levels would have been nearly identical under the previous regulation plan.
But Tertinek and others said the old plan would have allowed releases months ago in anticipation of the rising waters.
“Plan 2014 has been an utter disaster for Lake Ontario taxpayers and communities since it was approved in the final minutes of the Obama administration,” Republican Rep. Chris Collins said during a visit last week to eroding backyards in a beach town near Niagara Falls.
Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo traveled to the area Tuesday to get a firsthand look at the flooding that has affected hundreds of homes and businesses. He said the state is formally appealing to the International Joint Commission to release additional water through the Moses-Saunders Dam on the St. Lawrence River to lower Lake Ontario levels.
The commission must consider the impact of releases on downstream communities in Quebec, including the city of Montreal, where rain-driven flooding has prompted some evacuations.
Cuomo declared a state of emergency for several shoreline counties, freeing up the National Guard and other state resources including pumps, generators and 350,000 sandbags.
Cuomo warned that experts predict the lake levels to rise even higher by the end of May, but he did not appear to take a side in the debate over rules versus rain. He noted only that climate scientists say weather disasters are becoming more common in an era of global warming.
Lake Ontario has been artificially controlled by the Moses-Saunders Dam since 1960 for the benefit of St. Lawrence Seaway shipping, recreational boating, hydroelectric power generation and protection of millions of dollars’ worth of coastal property. Plan 2014, which is designed to more closely mimic the lake’s natural ups and downs, adds muskrats, fish and other wildlife to the list of interests regulators must consider when they decide how much water to release.
Biologists say more naturally fluctuating water levels will help restore 64,000 acres of wetlands that are home to muskrats, spawning grounds for fish and natural buffers for storm surges. The plan is also expected to lengthen the boating season, rebuild dunes and generate more hydropower.
But the environmental benefits will happen gradually over a decade. Flooding is happening now.
“I returned from Florida yesterday to find my road flooded and the lake just lashing at my dock and my breakfront,” said Chris Klee of the Rochester suburb of Greece, where residents have been piling sandbags to hold back floodwaters for two weeks. “Everybody up here is upset.”
Like many shoreline residents, Klee opposed Plan 2014 and is skeptical of assertions that the rule changes have nothing to do with the high water. But regulators say the same kind of flooding happened with heavy rains under the old plan in 1973 and 1993.
“The effects we’re seeing now are due strictly to hydrologic conditions in the basin, mostly heavy precipitation,” said Arun Heer, an official with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and secretary of the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board.
“This is not a new thing, floods are not uncommon,” said Lee Willbanks, executive director of Save the River, an environmental group based in the Thousand Islands region of the St. Lawrence. The challenge is to stop arguing over a plan that has been debated and revised for years, and focus on making property and infrastructure more resilient to increasingly severe and frequent storms.
“When the waters recede, people go back to their lives,” Willbanks said. “It would be great if we could take the expression of political frustration we’re hearing now and turn it into political will to address the problem.”
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