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Commission: Blame nature - not its plan - for Lake Ontario flooding

A perfect storm of high lake levels, ice formation and unprecedented spring rains flooded shoreline communities along Lake Ontario earlier this year, International Joint Commission officials said Tuesday at an environmental conference in Buffalo.

The flooding would have happened with or without the new lake-level regulating Plan 2014, according to a panel of experts meeting at the Hyatt Regency.

“The plan did not create the flooding,” said Lana Pollack, the U.S. chairwoman of the International Joint Commission. “It did not. It made zip, zilch, nada difference.”

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Pollack and others explained their conclusions as part of the three-day 13th annual Great Lakes Restoration Conference.

Plan 2014 — designed to ease constraints on water level fluctuations on the lake to allow for more natural processes — went into effect earlier this year after nearly two decades of research, planning and oversight by the binational commission and the governments of the United States and Canada.

“We have yet to know – and we’ll take some time to look – that it may have had an impact on shoreline protections or something, but the flooding levels? Not at all,” Pollack said.

Modeling data suggests the previous plan, in force from 1960 to 2016, would have resulted in the same catastrophic flooding, experts at the conference said.

“Same scene,” said Bill Werick, of the commission's Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management Committee. “The plan had no difference from the old plan.”

What happened, the panelists said, was that a roughly 20-year cyclical high in the lake water level was already in motion.

Then, an unprecedented freeze-thaw series took hold on Lake Ontario during a frigid month of March and late lake ice formed.

That meant operators at the Moses-Saunders hydropower dam between Massena and Cornwall, Ont., had to carefully control water releases.

“If you let the water out too fast, the ice jumbles up and creates an ice jam,” Pollack said. “That has to be avoided. If you have an ice jam, you’re not going to be able to let any water out.”

By the time they could ease up on the controls, the record rains of April and May began falling. And falling. And falling.

“It was the wettest March to May on record since 1873, and we had about 2 feet, 4 inches more water than average fall within the Lake Ontario watershed,” said Jim Howe, a regional executive director of the Nature Conservancy who supports Plan 2014. “That led to widespread flooding along Lake Ontario and along the St. Lawrence River downstream.”

The resulting flooding chased thousands from their homes in Montreal and caused significant erosion and shoreline damage on both sides of the border.

“At the beginning, there was nothing else they could do because of this ice condition. And in the end, there was all that rain and nowhere to release that water to,” Pollack said. “(Plan 2014) doesn’t create the rain. The plan just doesn’t give you another place to put the water.”

She added: “We could have put more water out later, if you wanted to flood Montreal worse.”

On balance, though, Howe and others said the plan charted a balance that benefits shippers, hydro-power generators, hunters, trappers, bird watchers, recreational boaters and other stakeholders.

They conceded it was unpopular with shoreline property owners – and later, the politicians who represent them.

During the peak of the flooding, and in the months that followed, public officials including Rep. Chris Collins and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo sharply criticized the commission.

Tuesday’s panelists said both reacted based on emotion, rather than facts.

“These are facts that are often overlooked because people are suffering,” Pollack said. “And, they’re looking for something that could be different and something that could be changed.”

It’s why part of the adaptive management recommendations of Plan 2014 include sturdier shoreline construction, more green infrastructure that would anchor the shoreline and hedge against erosion and a state-of-the art forecasting system being developed by Cornell University and New York Sea Grant to provide better warnings for property owners.

“Lake Ontario has flooded, and it will flood again,” Werick said. “Our studies show that it can even flood worse than it has.”

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