New York officials worry about how IJC vacancies could affect Lake Ontario

Mar 25, 2019

The binational organization that regulates shared water between the U.S. and Canada is missing the necessary amount of members it needs to take any actions. That's alarming some communities along Lake Ontario where water levels are about a foot above average.

The International Joint Commission (IJC) is responsible for approving projects that affect water levels and flows across the U.S.-Canadian border and resolving other transboundary issues. The commission is comprised of six members: three from the U.S. and three from Canada. But right now it has only two members - two short of the quorum needed to make decisions. 

"That's a real concern," said James Basile, mayor of the Cayuga County Village of Fair Haven, which is home to Little Sodus Bay Harbor on Lake Ontario. "We'd like to see those folks get those nominees up and get them on the board and keep the pressure on the Canadian side."

President Donald Trump has nominated three members to fill the U.S. side, but the Senate has yet to approve them. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) has called on his colleagues to expedite the process saying it's critical to have a fully staffed IJC to most effectively manage water levels on Lake Ontario and in the St. Lawrence River. IJC spokesman Frank Bevacqua says it is very unusual to have this many vacancies on the commission at once - the last time this happened was 1981 - but it should not have a major effect on water levels in Lake Ontario because those levels are controlled by a separate board.

"Our International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board is fully functional and at present they do have the authorities they need to do their jobs," Bevacqua said. "There are no decisions that would be made at the IJC commission level that would affect outflows at present."

And decisions the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board makes regarding the water level on Lake Ontario are largely governed by a water management plan called Plan 2014. But Bevacqua notes that while the Board has the power to deviate from Plan 2014, the Board can seek guidance from the IJC commission. That happened two years ago when the board was struggling with how to increase outflows from Lake Ontario without endangering navigation on the St. Lawrence River.

"In August of 2017, there were extremely high outflows to the point where it could have created risks for navigation in the St. Lawrence Seaway and there was commission guidance on what to do there," Bevacqua said.

But until the IJC commission has enough members, its current membership doesn't even have the ability to call a meeting.