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Agency blames weather for the Lake Ontario flooding; locals blame the agency

The international agency that regulates outflows from Lake Ontario continues to blame the weather for last year's flooding on the lakeshore, concluding that water would have been even higher without its intervention.

The International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board, a subsidiary of the International Joint Commission, issued a study absolving a lake management plan it implemented in January 2017 from responsibility for the floods.

"Extreme water levels have happened in the past and will continue again in the future, regardless of what regulation plan is in place," said Tony David, a U.S. board member.

The study drew strong criticism from local government leaders.

“This report is hypocrisy at its finest and is only further proof that the IJC lacks credibility," said Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence.

"The facts are, the plan was designed to concentrate shoreline damage along the southern shore of Lake Ontario and that is exactly what happened last spring," Collins said. "The homeowners, businesses and municipalities who were completely devastated by the flooding know that this is a completely biased report and it is sad that they can’t get assurance from the IJC that this won’t happen again."

The 51-page report says that when the management plan, called Plan 2014, was implemented 16 months ago, water levels were lower than average coming off of 2016, deemed a drought year.

The lake's water level was rising from January through March 2017 because of a wet winter and because Lake Erie was higher than normal, but the board did not increase outflows, its only water management tool, for fear of causing ice jams in the St. Lawrence.

"There was no credible forecast for the arrival of record-breaking precipitation in the spring," David said.

But in April and May 2017, it rained and rained.

For Buffalo, the period from January through May 2017 was the second-wettest five-month period since 1938. All-time records for January through May precipitation were set in Rochester, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.

The international board didn't follow Plan 2014 after that, David said. It deviated from the new plan, increasing lake outflows from June through August to the highest-ever recorded.

David told reporters that the responsibility for reducing future flooding lies with planning by state and local governments, including changes in "land-use planning, land-use management and the concepts of building coastal resiliency."

The board has no authority – or money – to force or fund more "resiliency," David said.

Eventually, with better weather last summer, Lake Ontario fell a record 13.8 inches during August. But the damage was done.

"Plan 2014 did not cause or exacerbate the flooding. During extreme weather such as last year, the rules of Plan 2014 largely reflect how the board operated under similar conditions in the past," David said. "The board would have faced these conditions under the old regulation plan, and outflows would have been very similar."

Newfane Supervisor Timothy R. Horanburg, whose hamlet of Olcott was among the hardest-hit flood zones, condemned the report.

"In one breath, they say Plan 2014 didn't have anything to do with it, and in the next breath, they say we have to plan for higher water. Yeah, they're beautiful," Horanburg said, fuming.

All of the town's shoreline infrastructure was built in accordance with the 1958 lake water management plan, he said.

"Now, they're telling us we have to scrap that and build for higher highs and lower lows. They're nuts," Horanburg said.

David said the board was not ready to ascribe the floods and the wet weather to climate change.

"This was an extreme event, a perfect storm if you will, of all of these things coming together at once, so it's hard to know if these events are going to occur more regularly, but they could," David said.

Collins and Niagara County legislators have called on President Trump to fire the Obama administration appointees representing the U.S. on the IJC and replace them with members willing to scrap Plan 2014. Canada, however, has an equal number of IJC members who may not agree with that goal.

David said even if Trump cleans house at the IJC, it would take years to craft a new policy.

Lake Ontario water levels are way down, but not low enough for comfort

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