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Proposed changes to Lake Ontario levels make waves; Property owners, lawmakers object to plan that IJC says addresses environmental needs

Shoreline property owners along Lake Ontario have benefited for years from the International Joint Commission's regulation of the water level, but the commission says its regulation has seriously damaged plant and animal life and the natural environment in general and fails to provide for future climate changes.

Now the commission wants to change that regulation. Scientists who have been studying the water level for many years say the proposed change would rebuild beaches, dunes and critical wetlands. It also could raise the average water level in Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence Seaway by a couple of inches.

In its efforts to modernize the management of water flow, the commission is walking a thin line between the interests of shoreline residents and modern environmental needs, including the effects of global warming.

Some lakeshore residents, including those among an overflow crowd of more than 400 people at a meeting earlier this month in the Olcott Fire Hall, say the proposed change would speed shoreline erosion and increase the risk of flooding.

"Nobody wants it," said Newfane Town Supervisor Timothy R. Horanburg, who attended the meeting. "Everybody at the meeting spoke against it, except for a couple of environmentalists who don't even live around here."

Horanburg said every municipality along the U.S. shore of Lake Ontario from the Niagara River to Rochester "is absolutely opposed to it. I'm baffled; I can't understand why the IJC wants to change it."

Under current practices dating back nearly 60 years, the commission tries to keep the fluctuation of water levels within four feet from the lowest points in the winter to the highest points in the summer. Its new suggestion, presented at a series of lakeshore community meetings in recent weeks, would raise the Lake Ontario average level by 2.4 inches in April, 1.2 inches in June and 2 inches in October.

>Local wetlands 'doing well'

"We designed everything based on a 4-foot fluctuation," Horanburg told The Buffalo News last week. "All of the [breakwaters] are designed on the 60-year-old plan. All of the local wetlands along the shore are doing well, but the IJC wants to sacrifice our shoreline to rejuvenate Canadian wetlands near the St. Lawrence River around Montreal."

One of the arguments, he said, is that increased wetlands would improve the habitat for muskrats, helping to preserve their population. "There's a simple solution for that," the supervisor said. "The state Department of Conservation could ban the shooting of muskrats, and their population automatically would increase without any change in the water flow."

Many of those attending the public information meeting vigorously applauded the reading of a letter from State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, who wrote that the proposed change would cause "devastating" financial and physical losses to shoreline property, fishing and other marine interests, and marina operations.

Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, also has voiced opposition to the plan.

The International Joint Commission is a binational organization established in 1909 to help Canada and the United States cooperatively manage the waters shared by the two countries.

The current controversy concerns only Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence Seaway, because they are the major waterways that can be controlled by the Moses Saunders Dam across the St. Lawrence between Massena, N.Y., and Cornwall, Ont.

The commission also manages water levels in Lake Erie and the Upper Great Lakes, but they would not be affected by the new proposal. The proposal is far from complete, and it will require numerous public hearings and changes before it could be implemented.

Four previous attempts by the commission to revise its water-level regulations have been withdrawn because of public outcry.

The IJC said its plan is meant to restore natural ecosystems around the lake and river after about six decades of regulations that gave greater weight to shipping, recreation, business and shoreline property interests than to environmental impacts.

>IJC acknowledges drawbacks

Frank Bevacqua, public information officer for the U.S. Section of the commission, said the plan aims to balance all interests, including the environment, shipping companies, charter boat operators, recreational boaters, hunters, anglers, tourism businesses and residents.

He distributed a pamphlet conceding that the plan "may reduce benefits to Lake Ontario shoreline property owners. While it is not expected that economic damages due to erosion or first-floor flooding will be much greater the life span of existing shoreline structures could be reduced."

The commission added: "Recreational boaters could also see some changes due to the slightly more variable water levels from year to year. Boaters would see more gradual declines in water levels in the fall. At the same time, during low water years, there could be fewer recreational boating days."

Bevacqua said there would be no significant impact on municipal and industrial water users.

Not everybody is opposed to the proposed change. Scientists, environmentalists and water management specialists on the commission say a new plan is needed because of changes in shoreline development in some areas since the current management plan was developed.

"New homes have been built, many residents have converted summer cottages to year-round residences, and recreational boating has become a significant economic activity," the commission said. It added that the current management of water levels is "outdated, unable to deal with future challenges and does not take the environment into consideration.

"If action is not taken to restore more natural patterns to the region's water levels and flows, environmental damage to the lake and river will continue.

"Valuable wetlands will continue to be lost, biodiversity in Lake Ontario and the Upper Saint Lawrence River will continue to suffer, and the region will not enjoy the improved quality of life or economic opportunities provided by a healthier environment."

>Varying water levels can help

Doug Wilcox, a Great Lakes wetland specialist and professor at Brockport State College, said the present water-regulation plan has devastated wetlands that require natural cycles of high and low water over the years to maintain populations of muskrat, northern pike, sedge grasses and wetland birds.

Without such natural cycles, he said, diverse wetlands have been overtaken by thick stands of cattails.

"In Lakes Michigan and Huron, there's a natural variation of lake levels that's absolutely essential to plant and animal populations," Wilcox said. "You just need one year of high water levels every 30 years or so to kill invasive [and unwanted] trees and shrubs. That's the way it worked before [the present] regulation on Lake Ontario."

Occasional low lake levels also benefit shorelines, Wilcox said. "When waves are hitting the shoreline at the same level every year, it accelerates erosion at that level."

When water levels were low in Lakes Huron and Michigan in 1999 after highs in 1997, sand and sediments along the shoreline were driven by wind to rebuild beaches and dunes, something that hasn't happened in decades on Lake Ontario, he said.

Jim Howe, executive director of the Nature Conservancy of Central and Western New York, is another supporter of the plan. It's not fair for the environment to be degraded so shoreline property owners can be protected against natural cycles of high and low waters, he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

email: rbaldwin@buffnews.com