WASHINGTON – Amid fears that Lake Ontario will overflow its banks and destroy millions of dollars of property again next year, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and the shipping industry are clashing over whether more water should be released from the lake.
Schumer, a New York Democrat, thinks water flows through the St. Lawrence Seaway should be pushed higher than ever in hopes of preventing spring flooding.
But the shipping industry fears that such a move could lead to an early shutdown of the Seaway this year and the loss of millions of dollars of business.
In the middle stands the binational body that manages the waters shared by the U.S. and Canada, the International Joint Commission – which seems reluctant to release more water from the lake.
"It is important to note that the current strategy is removing a large amount of water from Lake Ontario and that it would be difficult to remove significantly more water before next spring than the current outflow strategy will accomplish," the IJC said in a statement.
Water levels remain about a foot and a half higher than normal on Lake Ontario, which means shoreline property owners – who have witnessed at least $300 million in flood damage since 2017 – remain deeply worried.
"Everybody's in panic mode," said Jim Shea, president of the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Alliance, which represents property owners. "We're looking at major destruction next year."
That's not necessarily so. While Lake Ontario is currently much higher than normal, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – which monitors lake levels – said that may change by spring.
"Out of all the Great Lakes, Lake Ontario has the only chance to reach average conditions in the next few months," said Lauren M. Schifferle, a water management engineer with the Army Corps in Buffalo.
That's because Lake Ontario is the only one of the Great Lakes with anything slightly akin to a drain plug. The St. Lawrence Seaway's Moses-Saunders Dam can regulate the volume of water flowing from the lake through the St. Lawrence Seaway and on to the Atlantic.
The International Lake Ontario–St. Lawrence River Board – which the IJC created to control those water flows – has been deviating from its own plans and allowing higher water flows since May, all in hopes of alleviating the flooding threat on Lake Ontario. And last week that board said those higher-than-normal water flows could continue through next June.
But in a letter last week to the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corp., Schumer advocated pushing outflows in the St. Lawrence even higher in hopes of preventing future flooding.
"With the risk of a repeat of these immense damages looming, we must take every measure possible to protect communities along Lake Ontario,” Schumer said.
Schumer said even more water could be pushed through the Seaway without disrupting shipping so long as mariners were forced to adhere to a set of enhanced safety standards, such as speed controls and a prohibition on passing.
But the Chamber of Marine Commerce, which represents shippers, fears that increased outflows could force the Seaway to shut down early this year.
Closing the Seaway in December just to allow more water to flow out of Lake Ontario would cost the U.S. and Canadian economies $193 million a week, the chamber said. Meantime, IJC estimates show that such a closure would lower the level of Lake Ontario by no more than about an inch and a half a week, the shipping group added.
“Halting St. Lawrence Seaway shipping altogether would cause major harm to our economy and achieve no noticeable benefit for flooding victims," said Bruce Burrows, president of the shipping group.
For now, it appears that the International Joint Commission is siding with the shippers.
The U.S. and Canadian organizations that manage shipping on the Seaway "have told us that higher flow rates would endanger their mariners," the IJC said. "Twenty members of Congress from the Great Lakes region and the governor of Minnesota have also expressed their opposition to flow rates that would result in closing the Seaway in mid-December."
But in the statement, the IJC said it was open to pushing water through the Seaway at a faster rate next year if doing so might help prevent flooding.
"The IJC continues to review options for higher flows, including those that would result in Seaway navigation opening later than it otherwise would in 2020," the IJC said.
Shoreline property owners have long attacked the IJC for "Plan 2014," the water management plan it implemented a few months before the 2017 flooding started. And citing Plan 2014, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has sued the agency, hoping to recoup millions the state has paid out for flood damage.
But the IJC has been deviating from Plan 2014 since June by allowing higher water flows through the Seaway, and yet the threat of flooding remains.
The IJC and the Army Corps contend that unusually high precipitation throughout the Great Lakes region deserves the blame.
Average levels of precipitation, combined with continued high outflows of water through the Seaway, should be enough to return Lake Ontario to its normal level by the spring, said Schifferle, of the Army Corps.
But she stressed that that projection was based on historic weather data, and doesn't take into account the possibility that this could be yet another extremely wet winter.
So will there be flooding again along Lake Ontario in the spring?
"At this point, we simply don't know," Schifferle said.