WASHINGTON – Water is being pumped out of Lake Ontario at a record rate, but the new American chair of the International Joint Commission said Tuesday that the organization will explore the possibility of pushing water into the St. Lawrence Seaway at an even higher rate in hopes of alleviating lakeshore flooding.
Jane Corwin, the former state assemblywoman who became the U.S. chair of the IJC three weeks ago, said her organization hopes to have an emergency board meeting Wednesday to consider further flood control measures.
"We're letting water out at some of the highest levels ever done, to the point of putting shipping at risk," Corwin said in an interview. "We're doing a lot. And we're looking to do more."
Corwin also raised the possibility of suspending "Plan 2014," the IJC's controversial water management regimen, which some residents of New York's Lake Ontario shoreline blame for the flooding. But repealing Plan 2014 could be difficult, she added.
More immediately, the IJC – a binational board charged with managing the waters shared by the U.S. and Canada – will consider whether it's possible to again increase the flow of water into the upper St. Lawrence River at the dam complex near Massena, N.Y., and Cornwall, Ont.
The IJC affiliate that controls water flows recently increased outflows to the maximum rate that still allows for safe navigation. Water is now being drained from Lake Ontario at a rate matched only once before, during the flooding of 2017.
"We certainly have to see if the dam is capable of letting out more water," Corwin said. "And if it is capable, what are the ramifications downstream?"
Managing Lake Ontario's water level is a tricky business. The IJC has to take into account not only property owners along Lake Ontario, but also along the St. Lawrence, where flooding has also occurred, as well as shipping interests.
The binational agency tried to modernize the way it manages water levels through Plan 2014, which aims to protect wetlands and wildlife as well as shoreline residents. But the plan has come under a torrent of criticism from politicians such as Rep. Chris Collins, a Clarence Republican, and the state's top two Democrats: Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer.
The IJC's Canadian co-chair, Pierre Béland, told The Buffalo News Monday that he did not believe Plan 2014 caused the recent flooding.
"I agree with Pierre in that we've got extreme weather events going on right now," Corwin said. "And based on the data I see, I don't believe Plan 2014 caused the flooding. However – and it's a very big however – I do understand that the people on the U.S. side do not have any confidence in the plan. Certainly I think this warrants a discussion."
Corwin said she would raise the possibility of suspending the plan at the commission's meeting Wednesday, but she acknowledged a suspension might be difficult to enact.
The IJC board, consisting of three Americans and three Canadians, operates by consensus. That means all six commissioners would have to agree to suspend the plan, as would the U.S. and Canadian governments.
The plan has not produced the same level of controversy in Canada, Corwin noted. Béland, in fact, voiced support for it during a recent visit to Lake Ontario's southern shoreline.
That prompted Collins to respond Monday with a fiery, fact-based letter.
"Plan 2014 sets water levels one foot higher in the fall, leaving no room for the snow and the rain that the Western New York community experiences," Collins said, asking that the IJC revert to its old water management regimen.
Separately, Collins praised the new IJC leadership for taking temporary actions to alleviate the flooding.
"The International Joint Commission, under Jane’s leadership, has accomplished more for Western New York in three weeks than the previous IJC leadership has done in three years," Collins said.
Corwin discussed Plan 2014 and other issues Monday on a visit to the White House. She met with the special assistant to the president on environmental policy as well as the chairwoman of the Council on Environmental Quality.
"We also want to sure that the president's staff has been briefed on the flooding on Lake Ontario, so they have an understanding of how severe it is and how devastating it's been for the families," Corwin said.