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Another Voice: Water level management plan offers many benefits

By Jim Howe

Critics of a new plan for Lake Ontario water level management claim that those in favor of the long-term health of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River are putting “muskrats and cattails” above property values.

This couldn’t be further from the truth and reflects an outdated rallying cry of “environment versus economy,” when evidence shows that nature is one of the best investments around.

This isn’t just about helping muskrats, marsh birds or even northern pike, though Plan 2014 will do all of those things. It’s about making a smart investment in our future.

The environment of the lake and river has suffered under 50 years of regulation. The science on this is clear.

When the United States and Canada constructed the Moses-Saunders Dam on the St. Lawrence in the 1950s, no adequate scientific understanding of the Great Lakes existed. An unforeseen consequence of the dam’s management is that it has altered the lake and river’s natural ebb and flow, seriously degrading our environment.

Working with nature is almost always more successful than working against it. This concept is guiding today’s most innovative infrastructure projects, from rebuilding resilient communities in the wake of Hurricane Sandy to increasing shoreline protection with oysters in the Gulf of Mexico. We should apply it in our Great Lakes, too.

Wetlands filter and purify our water, absorb storm water during high water events, and support economically valuable hunting, fishing and wildlife-viewing opportunities. The IJC did not quantify these benefits during this study. But we looked closely at several of them and found Plan 2014 would provide a minimum of $4.0 to $9.1 million per year in benefits for people―and that’s considering only fish and wildlife recreation.

Compare this number to the estimated cost of the commission’s proposal: $2.2 million in additional erosion maintenance costs per year for all shoreline property owners along the lake. To put this number into perspective, shoreline owners are already spending about $15 million a year to maintain erosion control structures.

We sympathize with this added expense. But is it significant enough to justify continuing ecological damage that affects everyone indefinitely?

No management plan will solve all problems that come from living very close to a Great Lake. The good news is that there are solutions we can work toward, including more responsive permitting by state agencies, best design practices, state and federal assistance for the most vulnerable communities and dredging during low water years.

This summer we have the chance to choose a healthier lake, and with it a host of real, measurable benefits for people. Let’s begin a dialogue toward solutions, and not miss this chance.

Jim Howe is director of the Nature Conservancy’s Central & Western New York Chapter.