IJC says Lake Ontario levels are on the decline

Lake Ontario is declining at nearly half an inch a day and is likely to fall about a foot in the next month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported Friday. The lake is now dropping faster than at any point since hitting record high levels of over 249 feet in early June.

Lake regulators attribute the faster decline to drier weather conditions, lowering water in Lake Erie (which remains at record-highs) and water outflows that are tied with the highest rate on record.

A bi-national water control board has kept Lake Ontario outflows at 2.75 million gallons per second since June 12, and says it will maintain that rate until the water falls below 247.7 feet, which is likely to occur in the next week or two, according to forecasts. Those forecasts predict the lake will be about 247.1 feet by Sept. 9.

The high outflows have caused restrictions on commercial navigation, costing U.S. and Canadian businesses $2.3 to $3 million per day, according to the Chamber of Marine Commerce.

The International Joint Commission, which regulates U.S.-Canada boundary waters, say the high outflows are needed to bring relief to shoreline residents and businesses that have lost property due to the high water. 

Meanwhile, two separate studies are probing the impact of Plan 2014, a new water regulation scheme that the IJC adopted in December 2016 — less than six months before the first of two record-high water events in the past three years. 

Many shoreline residents and politicians blame the flooding on Plan 2014, and have called for a return to the old water regulation framework since summer of 2017.

The IJC acknowledges Plan 2014 intended to raise water levels by 2 to 3 inches during wet periods — and lower water levels by the same amount in dry years — in order to restore biodiversity in coastal wetlands, primarily located on the eastern half of Lake Ontario. Decades of stagnant water levels turned many wetlands into cat-tail monocultures, and hurt species like sturgeon and muskrats. 

However, the IJC says natural conditions, including high precipitation and heavy inflows from Lake Erie, are the culprit behind the recent high water.

In 2015, the IJC established the Great Lakes Adaptive Management committee, which was charged with completing a review and evaluation of the plan within 15 years.

“A lot of the performance indicators are not able to be assessed in a short time-frame," U.S. IJC Secretary Bryce Carmichael said.

The IJC asked the GLAM committee to identify which parts of its review it can complete sooner than 2030. 

The GLAM committee's review is supported to consider the impacts of all Lake Ontario interests, including shoreline residents, navigation, recreational boating, hydropower, the environment and industrial and municipal water uses.

Carmichael said the GLAM committee is compiling information on lakeshore damages from high water in 2017 and this year, and is considering whether it can expedite those portions of its review.

The Government Accountability Office, an independent agency that reviews government spending for Congress, has been investigating Plan 2014 since February. U.S. Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both New York Democrats, asked the GAO to study the performance of Plan 2014 and whether it contributed to the high water of 2017 or this year.

A GAO spokesperson said the agency is on track to complete the study by sometime next spring.