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Lobbying increases on both sides of Lake Ontario water level plan

Both sides in the debate over a plan to regulate water levels in Lake Ontario are stepping up lobbying efforts. Plan 2014 pits property owners against environmentalists and sportsmen.

At the center of the debate are wetlands, like the Lakeview Wildlife Management Area in South Sandy Creek.

Bob Jordan is a sportsman who’s been boating, fishing and trapping in these streams and marshes all his life, and doesn’t see a healthy ecosystem when he looks across the marshy area near the shore of Lake Ontario.

“Basically, what you’re seeing is a solid cattail mass, a little bit of grassland then solid cattail they don’t have the openings we used to have,” said Jordan.

The problem with too many cattails is they choke everything out.

“And you don’t have open areas. There’s not places for ducks to nest or to live. There’s not places for reptiles and amphibians,” said Jordan.

Experts say the problem here is a more than 50-year-old directive from the U.S. and Canadian governments that artificially keep lake levels within a narrow range; all with the help of a dam on the St. Lawrence River.  

These static water levels have stifled diversity in plant and animal life, say experts. So the International Joint Commission, a U.S.-Canada treaty organization that oversees the water levels on the Great Lakes, came up with Plan 2014 after 14 years of study and debate.  

Among its boosters is the Nature Conservancy.  Jim Howe of the Western and Central New York Chapter says it will allow water levels to rise and fall more than they do now, creating an environment friendlier to plant and animal diversity.

“The new plan would allow the lake to go two inches higher a few times a century, and would go six to eight inches lower a few times a century. But it’s really more about letting the lake modulate naturally between the current brackets,” said Howe.

Raising lake levels doesn’t sit well with property owners, like Dave Scudder of Save our Sodus, an organization that represents many property owners in the Sodus Bay area. He agrees that wetlands are in trouble, but he contends a few inches here or there is not inconsequential to people who live and work along the shoreline -- potentially damaging their property and putting their homes in danger, especially along the southern shore of the lake.

"We would be opposed, all of us, to anything that would give us higher highs, and from a business perspective, for the marinas in the area, and we do have over 1,200 slips for rent on Sodus Bay. So it’s a big deal if they were to go to the lower lows that they propose, it would be catastrophic,” said Scudder.

But Howe doesn’t see catastrophe.

"It’s not a question of people’s homes falling into the lake. It’s a question of if you have a rock wall in front of your house, or a break wall, you’re going to have to repair that every 18 years instead of every 20 years,” said Howe.

Scudder contends not enough has been done to look at alternatives to meddling with lake levels.

"We’ve spent a million dollars to correct some agricultural malpractice if you will and repair stream banks that were eroding, and to collect data to see if you are making an impact or not.”

So at this point, it’s up to the executive branch of the federal government to sift through the arguments and decide whether to go along with Plan 2014.  Both sides have been lobbying lawmakers all summer;  and sending letters to Secretary of State John Kerry, who has to sign off on the plan.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.