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Editorial: Tone down the rhetoric on flooding

Of all the people focused on the problem of rising water levels in Lake Ontario, the one with the most sensible approach so far is Pierre Béland who, as the Canadian chair of the International Joint Commission, is the target of much of the American criticism.

Critics blame flooding along Lake Ontario’s south shore on the IJC’s Plan 2014, which won binational approval for its strategy to allow the lake to approximate its more natural levels, rather than further lowering them via the dams along the St. Lawrence River.

But Béland this week observed – a tad archly, perhaps – that the commission’s influence is limited. “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.”

To that end, he called on all interested parties to “work together and base our judgments and our actions on facts and on what can be done.” Now, there’s an idea.

Béland says the lake would have flooded this year even if Plan 2014 had not been adopted. Given the facts, it’s an obviously plausible theory. And, significantly, the commission’s new American chair, former Assemblywoman Jane Corwin of Clarence, thinks he’s right.

“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.” Nevertheless, she said, Americans’ lack of confidence in the management plan warrants a discussion.

That’s a wise approach, one that the IJC’s harshest critics – including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Rep. Chris Collins and, most recently, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer – should heed. Or they can check the weather.

In the Midwest and the South and along the swollen Great Lakes, millions of Americans are waterlogged. That’s how wet it is this year, and every gallon of water that drains out of the Great Lakes watershed funnels into Lake Ontario, the last and lowest of the five lakes.

As The Washington Post recently reported, Lake Erie and Lake Superior broke records for average water levels in May. In fact, Lake Erie reached its highest level on record for any month. Those lakes, along with their sisters Huron and Michigan, ultimately direct their water down the Niagara River, over the falls and into Lake Ontario – and Lake Ontario can hold only so much.

It’s no surprise those levels are high. Precipitation in much of the Great Lakes region has been far above normal this year, by 150% to over 200%. The Great Lakes region also saw record snowfall last winter and that followed a fairly wet year. Oddly enough, rainfall in the Lake Ontario region was lower, but the lake still bears the brunt of the deluge.

What is more, Lake Superior is expected to continue rising through June and to remain near or above monthly records through September. That water will flow downstream.

It’s not just the Great Lakes. Across much of the nation’s midsection, rivers have overflowed their banks. Flooding has severely damaged river ports in Arkansas. Indeed, the Arkansas River has been closed to commerce. So has part of the Mississippi River near St. Louis. As The New York Times reported, farmers already struggling to plant in the soggy region also can’t get fertilizer delivered. Corwin notes that any faster drainage of Lake Ontario could similarly disrupt navigation and cause flooding along the St. Lawrence River where – wouldn’t you know it? – New Yorkers also live.

Let’s try this: Everyone take a deep breath. Stop trying to score political points. Let’s figure this out. Let’s see the numbers. How, precisely, would the lake have behaved this year under the old management plan? What, exactly, is the commission’s strategy for contending with record water levels? What else can it safely do to protect New Yorkers along Lake Ontario? How can it reassure the public?

The state’s elected officials are duty bound to look out for New Yorkers’ interests, of course. But maybe they can do that with a little less drama and while acknowledging water levels that are beyond anyone’s control. That’s leadership.

In the meantime, they should recognize that, regardless of Plan 2014, this is the consequence of a changing climate. It’s the job of elected officials to plan for that.

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