Business group: high lake outflows costing millions

File photoBusiness advocacy groups fear allowing for additional increases in Lake Ontario outflows would have a negative impact on business revenues in the U.S. and Canada.  

A group representing shipping has praised the decision by Lake Ontario regulators not to increase outflows beyond the current, record-tying rate, saying the move could result in over $1 billion in lost business revenue to the U.S. and Canadian economies.

Last week, the International Joint Commission's subsidiary that regulates lake waters indicated it would consider increasing outflows beyond the current rate of nearly 2.75 million gallons per second. That rate, which has been maintained since June 13, is tied with the highest-ever lake outflows, set from June 16 to Aug. 7, 2017, to alleviate then-record flooding.

But the subsidiary, the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board, announced Monday it would keep the water flowing at that same rate for the next week. The board will convene Friday for its weekly meeting to consider outflow adjustments. 

Should the board increase outflows beyond 2.75 million gallons per second, the St. Lawrence Seaway could impose "stop and go" travel restrictions on ships or be closed to navigation outright, according to the Chamber of Marina Commerce, which represents shipping, ports and related-industries.

The Chamber found those travel restrictions could cost the U.S. and Canadian economies $759 million to $1.3 billion in lost business revenues, depending on which of two previously-outlined scenarios the board adopts.

“Raising water outflows further to unsafe levels would halt navigation on the St. Lawrence Seaway and disrupt the supply of vital materials and products to industries and towns. This would cause significant harm to other parts of the economy and put jobs at risk,” said Bruce Burrows, president of the Chamber of Marine Commerce.

The losses would stem from disruptions to grain exports in Mid-West states, aluminum imports in Upstate New York and Ohio for automotive and appliance manufacturing, and imports of gasoline, construction materials and road-salt in Ontario, among others.

"The St. Lawrence Seaway is a vital trade artery for both raw materials and global exports for North American industries, including grain, manufacturing, steel, construction, mining and energy sectors," Burrows said.

The current outflows are hurting Seaway-reliant industries as well. To adapt to faster currents, the Seaway has imposed restrictions, including speed controls and prohibitions on passing other vessels in some areas of the river, as it did during the high flows of 2017.

The Chamber estimated then U.S. and Canadian economies lose $2.3 to $3 million per day. If those outflows are sustained for at least 10 weeks, as the board outlined in one scenario, loses could total $230 to $290 million.

The board also outlined a scenario in which outflows would be increased to almost 304 million gallons per second for five weeks. The Chamber found this would have halted Seaway traffic and caused losses of $1.4 to $1.75 billion as well as layoffs.

Another potential strategy would have set outflows at 304 million gallons per second for two days of each week, and returned flows to 2.75 million gallons per second for the other five, over an eight-week period. The Chamber concluded this strategy fared little better, costing the two nations' economies $1.1 to $1.44 billion.

Naturally, the Chamber called the first scenario, with lower flows over a longer period, the "best compromise solution" between maintaining safe navigation and alleviating flooding on Lake Ontario.

“Stop and go scenarios would also cause a cascade of traffic congestion in navigation channels, ports and significant safety challenges,” said Burrows, adding buoys could drift out of position and ships may have difficulty anchoring in such high flows.

"There has never been any study into the safety impacts of these kind of water flows on the system,” he added.

The board is tasked with balancing the impacts on different and often conflicting interests, including Lake Ontario and lower St. Lawrence River landowners, upper St. Lawrence River residents, hydropower, recreational and commercial navigation, and the environment.

“In that decision-making process, the board considers impacts on many stakeholders," said Andrew Kornacki, chief of public affairs for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Kornacki declined to comment on the chamber's claims, saying the board considers input from a variety of experts representing those various interests.

In a statement released Monday, the board did not address the impact on commercial navigation as a reason for maintaining outflows at 2.75 million gallons per second. Rather, the board said flooding conditions on the lower St. Lawrence River have left "very little capacity for passing water."

Lake St. Louis, near Montreal, is at a record high for this time of year, while water levels in Montreal Harbor are about four feet above average for late June.

"Many areas around Montreal and Lake St. Louis still remain flooded presently," the board wrote Monday.

Though low outflows would help commercial navigation, the high water has been disastrous to recreational navigation, including local docks and charter boat companies. 

Wilson's Lakeside Market owner Jim Bowman told the legislature earlier this month he saw a 10 percent drop in business in May, while some harbor business lost 18 percent.

Legislator David Godfrey said the Wilson Town Clerk's office has yet to issue a single fishing license to a Canadian this year. 

"Our businesses are being hurt at the same rate our shorelines are being hurt. That impact continues into the pocketbook of every taxpayer in the county," Godfrey said, referring to the losses in property tax revenue for local municipalities.

In order to make any progress lowering the lake, the board needs to maintain historically high outflows.

Total Lake Ontario inflows — including water flowing in from Lake Erie, smaller tributaries and rainfall, while subtracting water lost to evaporation — are currently about 2.58 million gallons per second, and have averaged closer to 2.65 million for all of June. If the board were to lower outflows below those rates, the lake would take on more water than is pouring out. 

Lake Ontario is already at records highs of 249.05 feet. The level has hardly budged since breaking the old record May 31, despite forecasts showing the high water gradually receding in the coming months.