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How did Lake Ontario flooding get so out of hand?

In December 2016, a new Lake Ontario water management plan went into effect, crafted by the International Joint Commission, the U.S.-Canadian agency governing the Great Lakes. It replaced a plan that had been used since 1963.

Plan 2014, as the new regulations were called, acknowledged the water would be a little higher, and there might be some more erosion and flood damage on the New York State side of the lake than there used to be. But the conditions along the lakeshore would be better for wildlife and the shipping season would last longer, according to the plan.

The plan anticipated $20 million in lakefront property damage from flooding and erosion every year, versus an average of $18 million under the old plan.

It hasn't worked out that way. In 2017, officials declared a state of emergency over the high Lake Ontario water level. New York State committed $100 million to repairing the damage. This year, another state of emergency was declared because of high Lake Ontario water level. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Monday that the state has committed $300 million for work on repairing damage and trying to prevent future floods.

Readers had questions in response to our ongoing coverage of Lake Ontario flooding, so we reached out to reporter Thomas Prohaska for answers. Digital engagement editor Qina Liu compiled the questions from readers on social media.

From Dennis Delaney: Where were (Sen. Charles) Schumer and Cuomo five years ago? They never even considered the effects to the southern shore of Lake Ontario. Mr. Hedley had a good point. Why didn't they reduce the lake level during the winter months to prepare for a wet spring?

Prohaska: First, control of the lake's water level isn't in the state's hands. It belongs to the International Joint Commission, established 110 years ago by a treaty between the United States and Canada to handle Great Lakes issues. The board has six members, three from each nation. A tie vote means nothing gets done, so compromise is essential. And major policy decisions must be approved in Washington and Ottawa.

The previous water management plan, called Plan 1958, attempted to aggressively regulate the water level, while using a dam between Massena and Cornwall, Ont., to generate hydroelectric power.

During the ensuing decades, there were complaints at times that the water was too high or too low.

There were serious floods along the lake in 1973 and 1993.

On the other hand, in 2013, officials fretted about unusually low water levels. Wilson and Olcott harbors actually were dredged in 2014. Now, the piers at those harbors are sometimes underwater.

As for water level management, the IJC's subsidiary, the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board, was slow to react to the 2017 flooding, but it was more active in 2018, a drier, mostly problem-free year. The water levels in January 2019 were about the same as in January 2018.

On Jan. 11, the board made a major reduction in lake outflows, and they didn't return to the pre-Jan. 11 level until Feb. 26. The outflows were cut again in late April, when Montreal and Ottawa had states of emergency and significant flooding. After that threat receded because of decreased flows into the ecosystem from Canadian rivers, the board started to increase lake outflows again.

But not until last week, after Jane L. Corwin of Clarence and two other nominees of President Trump's took the U.S. seats on the IJC, did the board scrap the limits in Plan 2014 and trigger outflows above the limits set in that plan.

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From John Failing: Doesn't the amount of water flowing through the St. Lawrence Seaway affect Lake Ontario's level?

Prohaska: Indeed it does, but Lake Ontario is so big and deep that the increased outflows don't produce quick change. Even with those record outflows taking effect this week – 2.75 million gallons leaving the lake every second – current forecasts by the Army Corps of Engineers show the lake dropping only 4 inches in the next 30 days.

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From Dennis Delaney: Like everyone else I've heard the stories of why this is happening. What I don't understand is, how did this get so out of hand until it was too late? And now Cuomo is talking about "the new normal." How did Cuomo and his administration not see this coming?

From @mikebhungry on Twitter: Where was Schumer when IJC implemented Plan 2014?

Prohaska: Some in local governments did see this coming. For example, in August 2014, the Niagara and Orleans county legislatures passed resolutions condemning Plan 2014 and urging Cuomo to fight it because of the risk of high water and increased erosion.

Although Cuomo has been blasting Plan 2014 since the 2017 floods, we haven't found any record that he or Sen. Charles E. Schumer spoke out about it at the time it was adopted.

Plan 2014, approved in December 2016, estimated that the average increase in lake levels as a result of its regulations would be only 2.4 inches. Last week, the Army Corps of Engineers reported Lake Ontario was 32 inches above its long-term average and 3 inches higher than the 2017 record.

At public hearings before the plan was adopted, New York property owners complained that they were facing all the risk of increased damage. The IJC didn't deny that but concluded it wouldn't be too bad.

"No plan has ever been developed that gained the support of all interests," Plan 2014 says in big blue italics.

The document predicted "a small reduction of benefits to riparians (lakefront property owners) on Lake Ontario, in the form of increased costs of maintaining shoreline protection structures."

But in two of the three years Plan 2014 has been in effect, there have been record-high water levels, floods and erosion. Whether that's a measure of bureaucratic incompetence or what the insurance companies call an "act of God" is a question that has been answered differently depending on whether one is a lakefront property owner or an IJC official.

The IJC insists it's just because of unusually rainy weather. Those who see climate change behind the situation might agree with Cuomo that this is "the new normal."

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From Max Teller: Where is the National Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers?

Prohaska: Since late April, the state has deployed some National Guard members at various lakefront locations to take fill sandbags and do other flood prevention activities. As for the Army Corps, its role in immediate flood response is limited, although the Corps' Buffalo office did send a team to Sodus last month to advise the village government on where best to locate sandbags. If there are major construction projects to prevent future flooding, the Corps will play a major role.
The Corps' flood response is dependent on state requests. For example, it is getting ready to do repair work to the flood wall at Old Fort Niagara. Also, it is preparing to do a study on Great Lakes flood protection infrastructure needs. If there are any future construction projects on the lakes, the Corps will be heavily involved in them.

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From Jerry Merkle: Why not file a class-action suit against the IJC for their inability to maintain lake levels at a lower level?

Prohaska: That would appear to be illegal. The International Organizations Immunities Act, a federal law passed in 1945, exempts international organizations and their members from lawsuits over actions taken in their official capacity. In 1948, then-President Harry Truman signed an executive order specifically stating the IJC is covered by that law.

Nevertheless, State Sen. Robert G. Ortt of North Tonawanda suggested suing the IJC in a recent letter to State Attorney General Letitia James, and Cuomo threatened possible legal action in a letter to the IJC last Friday demanding more outflows and reimbursement from the IJC for the state's flood damage.

Canadian IJC head defends agency amid flooding – and criticism

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