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It's the inflow bloating Lake Ontario

For those who remain unconvinced that flooding along Lake Ontario is more about nature running amok than bureaucrats, new data may provide a little clarity.

The south shore of Lake Ontario has flooded twice in the past three springs, prompting a deluge of criticism aimed at the International Joint Commission, a binational organization charged with managing the lake’s level. The thinking is that because the flooding occurred just after implementation of the Commission’s Plan 2014, which allowed for higher, more natural lake levels, it must be that change that has caused misery for lakeside property owners. For them, the coincidence is too obvious to ignore.

But the rising lake levels are also coincidental with exceptionally wet springs that have funneled record amounts of water into Lake Ontario, the lowest of the five Great Lakes and way station for all the water they pour into it. As the Commission’s Canadian chair, Pierre Béland, dryly noted last year “We have no control over the amount of water that flows into Lake Ontario. The only thing we can do is to throw water out of the Lake Ontario without overly flooding people at the downstream end.”

Now, new data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration station in Olcott makes the case the that culprit is the volume of inflow, not the rate of outflow. It measured Wednesday’s water level at 246.54 feet – about 10 inches higher than at the same time last year.

That’s ominous for property owners contemplating May and June, but it also points to the amount of water flooding into the lake as the root of the problem. Consider two related factors:

• Plan 2014 was in effect both years, yet the water level today is nearly a foot higher.

• At the same time, the Commission set an outflow record last month, releasing 2.8 million gallons per second, up from 2.43 million gallons. That’s 71% more water than last January’s lowest rate of 1.64 million gallons per second. And still the lake is 10 inches higher.

It’s all too human to look for someone to blame for hardship and the Commission is an easy target. Many residents have taken that approach, as have politicians from Niagara County to Albany to Washington. But, to their peril, they are misreading the facts and misleading their constituents.

Among those politicians sure that Plan 2014 was to blame was former Rep. Chris Collins who, before resigning from Congress, engineered the appointment of a political ally as the Commission’s American chair. But once Jane Corwin was able to dig into the facts, she soon agreed with Béland that nature was the problem.

“I agree with Pierre in that we’ve got extreme weather events going on right now,” she said last spring, when outflows were also at near-record levels. “And based on the data I see, I don’t believe Plan 2014 caused the flooding.”

Still, the Commission and Plan 2014 are the continuing targets of ire. That’s dangerous, especially if it discourages governments, residents, scientists and others from confronting the hard truth of the destructive effects of a changing climate.

As Corwin, Béland, scientific forecasts and the sheer volume of water make clear, there is little reason to expect a respite. Given where the lake’s level is starting from this year, it’s likely that flooding will occur again this spring and that it could be worse than last year – enough to force evacuations in low-lying areas, according to Jonathan F. Schultz, Niagara County’s emergency management director.

One possible wrinkle in that forecast is that lake levels may be higher than last in part because of a warmer winter in which more rain falls than normal. That could account for some of the higher lake levels, while also diminishing the amount of snow to melt in spring.

Still, there’s too much water for the tub. Hard decisions await on what to do for or about lakeshore properties. The longer those decisions are put off, the worse it will be.

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