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Lake Ontario property owners' complaints are heard in Washington

WASHINGTON – Lake Ontario land owners stood by helpless as rising waters wrecked their property this spring, but strong voices rose to their defense in the U.S. Capitol Tuesday.

Officials from Western New York and the House members who represent them met with representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers, with both short term and long term relief in mind.

In the short term, those local officials hope for a federal disaster designation that would bring millions of dollars to the counties affected by the flooding. In the long term, they hope to persuade the International Joint Commission to abandon Plan 2014, its new way of regulating water levels on the lake, which local residents blame in part for the flooding.

Some $7 million in state disaster aid doesn't come close to covering the property damage from the flooding, said Niagara County Legislator David E. Godfrey, R-Burt.

That's one reason why he and other public officials from Ontario, Monroe and Wayne counties wanted to meet with FEMA. FEMA and the State Department of Environmental Conservation are doing a damage assessment in the region, and if the damage exceeds $27.5 million, it will qualify for federal aid.

"I'm sure we've exceeded that amount," said Godfrey, who called federal disaster aid "issue number one" for the lake shore counties.

Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, said: "The numbers we talked about in that room are quite large. It's a matter of what we can count and can't count" that qualifies as flood damage under FEMA's rules.

Collins and Godfrey were also on the same page about Plan 2014.

Under that plan, the board that manages water levels can allow Lake Ontario to be 2.4 inches higher during the wettest times and eight inches more shallow during dry times, reflecting the natural cycle of wet and dry times that helps preserve the region's wetlands. Plan 2014 also prescribes formulas for determining the lake levels, giving the board less leeway in responding to flooding.

The IJC – a binational body that regulates the Great Lakes – implemented Plan 2014 earlier this year, and Godfrey argued that it's clear the plan contributed to the flooding.

The Army Corps of Engineers argues that this spring's heavy rains prompted the flooding, but Godfrey told them that the region has  received more rain in several other years when there was no flood damage.

Collins said the Army Corps representative heard "a very emotional plea" from the visitors and from Collins about Plan 2014, which Collins has been fighting for years.

He said he asked the Army Corps representative to acknowledge in a letter that Plan 2014 contributed to the flooding – and to support Collins' effort to get the controversial plan repealed.

"Plan 2014 clearly was a contributing factor, and we don't want to face this again," Collins said.

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