Pressure mounts on IJC to stave off possible 2020 Ontario flooding

James Neiss/staff photographerThe 12 Mile Creek dock at Wilson Tuscarora State Park were closed due to high water levels in this photo from late May of this year.

Pressure is mounting on regulators to release more water from Lake Ontario in the coming months, as forecasts predict an increasing likelihood of high water levels next spring.

Forecasts from an International Joint Commission subsidiary that sets lake outflows estimate a nearly 50 percent chance Lake Ontario will reach or exceed 247 feet by early May — just inches below the lake level that time this past spring. A combination of snowmelt, heavy rainfall and downstream flooding tends to raise water levels in Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River through April, May and sometimes June.

This spring, water levels kept climbing until peaking at a record high of 249.08 feet June 14, according to the IJC subsidiary, the International Lake Ontario St. Lawrence River Board.

What's more, the board forecasts a 5 percent chance the lake could nearly hit that record high by May 1.

Several environmental and shoreline groups have raised alarm at these forecasts as well as recent conditions.

Jim Shea, president of the Lake Ontario St. Lawrence River Alliance, pointed out the levels ticked up nearly two inches between Oct. 26 and 30. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Friday forecasted no drop in the lake levels by Dec. 1.

"At a time when Lake Ontario water levels should be going down, they are going up," Shea wrote.

Shea urged Alliance members to write Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Trump to ask the leaders to repeal Plan 2014, a new water regulation plan that many shoreline groups blame for the flooding this year and in 2017.

"Canadians and Americans cannot afford a repeat of the Lake Ontario floods of 2017 and 2019," Shea said.

Members of United Shoreline Ontario, a Canadian homeowner group, said the IJC's current outflow strategy is "setting us up for a third year of catastrophic economic, social and environmental destruction."

The IJC has said it is maintaining the highest outflows possible without increasing currents so much the river becomes unsafe for shipping.

Since Oct. 26, the board has kept outflows at about 2.34 million gallons per second — well below the estimated 2.59 million gallons entering the lake every second.

IJC spokesman Frank Bevacqua said the board has kept outflows nearly 53,000 gallons per second above the rate considered safe for commercial navigation.

“The IJC’s board has worked tirelessly to reduce water levels, including record-high outflows through the summer, and Lake Ontario has come down nearly three feet," Bevacqua said in a statement.

Higher outflows would necessitate a shutdown of the St. Lawrence Seaway, a critical artery for commerce.

But St. Lawrence environmental group is urging for just such a shutdown.

Save the River, an environmental non-profit representing the southern St. Lawrence River, wrote a letter Oct. 26 asking the U.S. Department of Transportation and Canadian arm of the Great Lakes Seaway Corporation to close the waterway Dec. 1. The U.S. and Canadian Seaway corporations jointly determine when to close the waterway.

The Seaway typically closes from late December to late March, with weather conditions influencing the precise closure and opening dates.

"It appears that the only proactive maneuver within your power against (2020 flooding) is to allow for ramp up of the outflows … to the maximum design limits," John Peach, director of Save the River, wrote to DOT Deputy Administrator Craig Middlebrook and Terence Bowles, president and CEO of the Great Lakes Seaway Management Corporation.

“Closing the seaway on Dec. 1 would create the opportunity for the (board) to increase outflows to the maximum and decrease the water level before having to temporarily reduce the flow to form a proper sheet of ice," Peach wrote.

Members of another shoreline group, the Lake Ontario Riparian Alliance, commended Save the River's efforts.

"They are joining the lake shoreline speaking with one voice. At some point the IJC and Canadian and US governments have to take notice and respond," LORA President Dr. Dan Barletta said in a statement.

Gov. Cuomo's office urged for stronger action to mitigate potential 2020 flooding, though without explicitly endorsing an early Seaway closure.

“For too long, the IJC has put business and shipping interests before the best interests of our communities in New York," Cuomo spokesman Jason Conwall said in a statement. "That needs to change and we believe all options should be on the table to reduce flooding in shoreline communities."

But closing the Seaway weeks early would be a costly disruption to numerous U.S. and Canadian industries.

A spokeswoman for the Chamber for Marine Commerce, which represents shipping in the Great Lakes and Arctic, said December is "one of our busiest times of the year." Closing the Montreal-to-Lake-Ontario stretch of the Seaway then would cost the U.S. and Canadian economies $27 million (USD) per day, according to Chamber spokeswoman Julia Fields.

"December is a critical time for grain exports and stockpiling of raw materials for the manufacturing sector to operate through the winter months," Fields said in a statement. "A closure would disrupt supply chains, cancelling already booked cargoes or forcing them onto thousands of trucks – raising prices and causing environmental and social implications."

The IJC suggested Save the River's preferred approach would not significantly change the lake level.

"The board will continue to examine every option, including exceeding limits designed to prevent navigation accidents and ice jams in the winter, but all of the options provide limited relief and have significant negative consequences," Bevacqua said.

Regardless, it's clear many shoreline homeowners and businesses are desperate to avert a third record-high water event in four years.

Peach pointed out shoreline businesses “suffered significant losses due to the effects of extreme high water.

"It will be difficult for them to make up those losses. Another extreme high water year could force them out of business," Peach wrote in his letter to the DOT and Seaway Management Corporation.

"I don’t know how much more the businesses along the lakeshore can handle," said Kory Schuler, executive director of the Niagara USA Chamber.

Schuler acknowledged state-funded efforts to strengthen shoreline areas could eventually help businesses struggling amid the lakeshore conditions of recent years. But for some businesses, those projects may provide too little relief too late.

"I think some businesses may try and hang in there," Schuler said. "If we have another very adverse year (in 2020), I think then we’ll see some decision-making. There will be a reckoning.”

Schuler said he is not sure exactly how an early Seaway closure would affect local businesses.

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