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16 years in the making: Water level plan for Lake Ontario, St. Lawrence River approved

Thousand Islands Tourism Bureau

Green groups and boaters along the St. Lawrence River and eastern Lake Ontario won a huge victory Thursday. The U.S. and Canada approved a new, more natural plan for managing water levels after 16 years of study that cost more than $20 million.

It's the first time a new method for managing outflows at the Moses-Saunders hydroelectric dam has been enacted since the dam was built in the 1950s. The new regime, known as "Plan 2014," more closely mimics the natural ebbs and flows of the water, and is expected to improve northern pike populations and help revive 64,000 acres of wetlands.

The International Joint Comission, is the binational agency that manages the water levels and studies and approved Plan 2014.

"Essentially the 2nd largest wetlands restoration project in North America"

During a press conference by phone, IJC chair for the U.S. side, Lana Pollack, said:

"Plan 2014 is a modern plan for managing water levels and flows that will restore the health and diversity of coastal wetlands, perform better under changing climate conditions and continue to protect against extreme high and low water levels."

The IJC projects the changes will help restore 64,000 acres of wetlands, what Lee Willbanks, director of Save The River, based in Clayton, calls "essentially the second largest wetland restoration project in North America, after the Everglades."

Save the River has pushed hard from the beginning for restoring the natural ebbs and flows to the lake and river. Willbanks says the group's members are "euphoric, and I gotta tell you, pretty thankful." The IJC says the wetlands improvements will help bird and fish populations -- northern pike, sturgeon, walleye, and muskie -- and that could attract more anglers and birders.

An economic boost and a longer tourism season

The plan also should raise water levels in the fall most years for a longer boating season. Willbanks says that’s huge for St. Lawrence River communities who always struggle to survive.

"Another job, or another kid who gets to be on a boat dock for a couple weeks, a marina that’s open for another couple of weeks. That has a real impact in terms of what it means to a Waddington or a Morristown or a Brockville,"  said Willbanks.

The Nature Conservancy estimates the new plan will generate $12 million a year in new economic activity.

A coalition of environmental groups, the Akwesasne Mohawks, and North Country local governments backed the plan, including North Country Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-Willsboro). In a press release, she called the IJC’s decision “critical to our local economic growth in addition to good environmental policy.”

Southern Lake Ontario shore residents fear more flooding

Credit Joe deSousa / Flickr
Lake Ontario Shoreline

The biggest opponents remain property owners along the southern shore of Lake Ontario. They fear the plan will cause more flooding and erosion near their homes.

Henry Stewart, president of the Lake Ontario South Shore Council, called the decision “a travesty” and "so detrimental" to people who bought their properties long before the new plan was hashed out.

Dan Barletta, who owns lakefront land in Greece, outside of Rochester, says it’s not fair to change the regulations.
"People put money in based on the current regulation plans, and that's private property," said Barletta,

Rep. John Katko (R-Camillus), who represents Wayne County, called the decision a last-ditch effort by the Obama Administration.

"I will continue to work with all levels of government – including the incoming Administration – as well as stakeholders and community members to pursue every possible course to ensure that our shoreline is protected and to mitigate the impact of this decision," Katko said in a press release.

The IJC’s Lana Pollack acknowledged those criticisms, saying the decision had to strike a balance.

"It’s hard to give 100 percent to any particular interest when there are competing interests also involved, and that was the situation here."

The water levels plan is scheduled to take effect in January. When asked about whether the Trump administration could affect the outcome, the IJC said any new change would take another long process involving both the U.S. and Canada.

David Sommerstein, a contributor from North Country Public Radio (NCPR), has covered the St. Lawrence Valley, Thousand Islands, Watertown, Fort Drum and Tug Hill regions since 2000. Sommerstein has reported extensively on agriculture in New York State, Fort Drum’s engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the lives of undocumented Latino immigrants on area dairy farms. He’s won numerous national and regional awards for his reporting from the Associated Press, the Public Radio News Directors Association, and the Radio-Television News Directors Association. He's regularly featured on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Only a Game, and PRI’s The World.