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New York officials say IJC should have drained Lake Ontario earlier

Veronica Volk
WXXI News (file photo)
The International Joint Commission started increasing outflows from Lake Ontario through the Moses-Saunders Dam in May to reduce flooding for shoreline communities.

A growing number of New York lawmakers are saying this year's historic flooding along Lake Ontario was not only caused by Plan 2014, but also by the execution of it.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-New Hartford) and Rep. John Katko (R-Camillus) say the International Joint Commission (IJC), the organization that operates water levels under Plan 2014, waited too long to increase the outflows from Lake Ontario. The IJC started draining it into the St. Lawrence River in May, but Katko says that should have happened much sooner since they knew back in January that the Great Lakes, which all drain into Lake Ontario, were unusually high.

"That should have been a signal then to start lowering water levels to anticipate the coming waters that were going to be flowing their way that were much greater than normal," Katko said. "Instead of doing something, they did nothing when they knew those water levels were coming. Then of course we had the heavy rains in March, which exacerbated the problem, so it was a failure to act on the IJC's part."

But IJC spokesperson Frank Bevacqua says the international organization was constrained by natural conditions. From January through March, there were sustained periods of ice formation. Five in all, including two in March that Bevacqua says has never happened before.

"The flow has to be reduced so you don’t form massive ice jams in the St. Lawrence river, which could restrict the outflow from Lake Ontario for an extended period," Bevacqua said. 

Bevacqua says the IJC also had to balance what they could drain from Lake Ontario with the consequences for downstream communities.

"In Montreal, you had thousands of homes evacuated in April and you had communities that were under water," he said. 

Tenney says the organization should pay property owners for the resulting damage, but Bevacqua says there's no precedent or money for that. He says any reimbursements will need to come from domestic authorities, like New York state.

Katko agrees, which is why he wants the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to compensate property owners in the short term and scrap Plan 2014 as a long-term fix. Thus far, the damage has not reached the FEMA threshold for federal assistance.

"Plan 2014 has to go or the IJC will have to find a way for natural remuneration for these people to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, which they’re never going to be able to do," Katko said. 

The plan was approved by the a joint U.S.-Canadian Commission, and went into effect January 7. It was designed to create more natural variations of water levels along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence Seaway, as a way to restore the ecosystem. Advocates of the plan and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers say it has had a negligible impact on water levels this spring.

Payne Horning is a reporter and producer, primarily focusing on the city of Oswego and Oswego County. He has a passion for covering local politics and how it impacts the lives of everyday citizens. Originally from Iowa, Horning moved to Muncie, Indiana to study journalism, telecommunications and political science at Ball State University. While there, he worked as a reporter and substitute host at Indiana Public Radio. He also covered the 2015 session of the Indiana General Assembly for the statewide Indiana Public Broadcasting network.