By Larry Beahan
No plan could have protected Lake Ontario from this year’s disastrous flooding. Neither the villainized Plan 2014, which was developed by the International Joint Commission after years of careful deliberation and consultation, nor its 1958 predecessor could have prevented it.
Weather was freakish on the St. Lawrence River and around Lake Ontario. Unexpected warm spells interrupted ice formation on the river five times. The IJC is mandated by the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty between Canada and the United States to control the flow of the river equitably for all its users.
If the IJC had increased the flow before a solid ice cover formed, it would have created massive ice jams that would have dramatically slowed drainage and made lake flooding much worse.
Downstream, the St. Lawrence valley had strange weather, with very heavy precipitation. Flooding hit communities around Montreal and left thousands homeless.
But the real source of the disastrous Lake Ontario flooding was upstream around Lake Ontario itself. From Feb. 19 to April 19, the lake’s watershed received more than twice its average precipitation. Then, April and May set an all-time record for precipitation there. Add to that Lake Erie, which supplies 75 percent of the inflow, pouring 15 percent more water than average into Lake Ontario.
There is no reliable way to have predicted this bizarre weather streak. Yet, the IJC is charged with this precarious balancing act of controlling water levels in both flood and drought for residents, boaters, shipping and natural habitat.
Neither the 1958 nor the 2014 plans would have prevented the disaster. Their high and low emergency trigger points are identical.
Without the control that both the 1958 and the 2014 plans provide, the average shoreline damage to Lake Ontario would amount to $48 million. The 1958 plan cut that back to $18 million. Plan 2014 makes it $20 million. But Plan 2014 buys us the largest wetland restoration outside of the Florida Everglades, 64,000 acres of invaluable, healthy wetland.
Plan 2014 does this by allowing for a small increase in water level fluctuation. The more constant levels of the 1958 plan have severely restricted the variety of wetland vegetation and left these wetlands sterile. Native plants, beaver, fish, turtles, ducks and a great variety of other reptiles, birds and mammals rely on healthy wetlands for sustenance and shelter.
U.S. Reps. John Kakto of Camillus and Chris Collins of Clarence are paddling us up the wrong creek in search of a solution to this year’s Lake Ontario flooding disaster. Their call for U.S. withdrawal from and defunding of the IJC’s painstakingly prepared, scientific Plan 2014 threatens to leave the users of Lake Ontario up the creek with no paddle at all.
Disaster relief, not the sacking of Plan 2014, is the answer to this natural disaster.
Larry Beahan is conservation chairman of the Sierra Club Niagara Group.