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Canadian IJC head defends agency amid flooding – and criticism

There's a new team overseeing water levels on the overflowing Great Lakes — but the new Canadian chairman of the International Joint Commission is continuing to defend a water management plan that American politicians blame for flooding on New York's Lake Ontario shoreline.

In an interview on Monday, IJC Canadian chair Pierre Béland said this year's flooding would have been no different even if  the agency's "Plan 2014," its controversial water management regimen, had never been enacted.

Asked what he had to say to people who live along the lake, Béland said he sympathizes with those who are in danger of losing their homes. But he added: "Criticisms that are not based on the facts are not useful … We should all work together. Instead of criticizing each other, we should all work together and base our judgments and our actions on facts and on what can be done."

Béland's comments came shortly after Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, criticized the IJC at a lakeside event in Olcott.

"There's been terrible management by the IJC, no cooperation by the Canadians — they don't give a darn if our areas flood, and that has to come to an end. And we are here to do that, because this has happened over and over and over," Schumer told reporters. "It's going to happen every few years unless we get permanent structural change."

The dispute over what's to blame for the flooding came on a day when it received extraordinary attention. While Béland spoke on the phone from Canada, his American counterpart — former Assemblywoman Jane Corwin of Clarence — was at the White House, meeting with President Trump's Council on Environmental Quality to discuss the flooding.

Meanwhile, the IJC subsidiary that manages Lake Ontario water levels announced it would increase the flow of water into the St. Lawrence River. And at an event in Rochester, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo pledged to spend $300 million a year in hopes of preventing future flooding on Lake Ontario.

Yet the argument over the IJC's performance served as the backdrop for all of those events.

Corwin did not return a request for comment after her White House meeting, leaving Béland to speak for the six-member binational commission, which is split evenly between American and Canadian members.

In the interview, Béland defended the IJC's professional staff,  which drew up Plan 2014 as a modern way to try to regulate water levels while protecting wetlands and wildlife.

"Our board is made up of experts," he said. "And we totally support these people. They are doing a great job."

Béland said Mother Nature deserves the blame for this year's flooding, which is similar to the water surge that caused more than $100 million in damage in 2017. This year, just like two years ago, months of unusually persistent rainfall overfilled the entire Great Lakes basin.

It's a "misunderstanding" to think that Plan 2014 is responsible for the high water levels, he said.

"We have no control over the amount of water that flows into Lake Ontario," he said. "The only thing we can do is to throw water out of the Lake Ontario without overly flooding people at the downstream end."

Still, shoreline property owners such as David Hedley continue to blame Plan 2014 for the flooding. The owner of Hedley Boatyard, Hedley showed up at Schumer's press conference in Olcott and said he has suffered more than $200,000 in damage at his business on the east side of Olcott Harbor.

He said Plan 2014 never should have been enacted.

"Nothing wrong with the old plan," Hedley said. "They gotta get more water out during the winter to accommodate the rainfall and the snow. Do their damn job, that's what I say."

Debate over the plan continued as rainy weather and high winds threatened even more flooding. The National Weather Service posted a lakeshore flood warning for Niagara and Orleans counties Monday morning. The warning was to take effect at 11 p.m. Monday and continue through 2 p.m. Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the IJC, in an unusual step, announced plans to increase lake outflows daily through Thursday, reaching a level matching the highest on record: nearly 2.75 million gallons per second.

That matches the fastest outflow the IJC's lake management subsidiary, the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board, allowed during the 2017 floods.

The board's announcement said the flows are above the levels set in Plan 2014 as the maximum safe threshold for commercial navigation on the St. Lawrence River.

Rep. Chris Collins, a Clarence Republican who has been attacking Plan 2014 since before its enactment, lauded the increased water outflows.

"I am glad to see the U.S. chair of the IJC, Jane Corwin, and her new U.S. commissioner colleagues have hit the ground running," said Collins, who lobbied for Corwin's appointment. "Within two weeks of their confirmations they held a listening session with local officials along the Lake Ontario south shore and toured flood damage. Now they have increased the release of water through the St. Lawrence as a first step in easing Lake Ontario flooding concerns."

Collins said he still hopes the IJC will abandon Plan 2014, but Béland didn't sound ready to do that, saying that plan had nothing to do with this year's flooding.

Even if the plan had never been implemented, "it would be exactly the same thing" in terms of flooding this year, he said.

He said the agency must balance the interests of Lake Ontario property owners with those upstream on the St. Lawrence, as well as those of shipping interests and hydropower facilities. And it must do so at a time when climate change may be changing precipitation patterns in ways that are difficult to predict.

That being the case, Béland lauded Schumer's effort to obtain $12 million in federal funds for a Great Lakes Coastal Resiliency Study, as well as Cuomo's formation of a state task force to carry out a similar study.

"We have a major challenge ahead of us," Cuomo said. "This situation with Lake Ontario is not a once-in-a-lifetime event, and the question is now not if it happens again, but when it happens again."

In Rochester, more than 250 state and local officials attended the first meeting of Cuomo's Lake Ontario commission to hear the governor make his $300 million pledge.

It's not a giveaway: Local governments will have to match 15% of the state's funding for flood prevention and economic development efforts, as the high water threatens communities whose economies are tied to seasonal activities such as fishing.

While state officials stressed the pressure that climate change appears to be putting on Lake Ontario, the state's commissioner of environmental conservation, Basil Seggos, said in an interview that Cuomo thinks the IJC hasn't done its part in helping New York communities along the lake.

"We've made clear that it's our impression that the shoreline owners on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River have gotten a lesser priority than the shipping interests, and we intend to change that," Seggos said.

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