For the second time in three years, property owners along the southern and eastern shores on Lake Ontario are experiencing catastrophic flooding. With lake levels nearly three feet above the 100-year average, water has once again eroded shorelines, forced the collapse of sea walls, and flooded septic systems and homes. Even people who took precautions after 2017 or made repairs from the last flood are being forced to address the same problems again.
[They are] exactly the type of flooding events that property owners feared would happen after a new water-management plan took effect beginning in 2017. The International Joint Commission (IJC), which regulates water levels in the lake was established by an international treaty to help handle issues in shared waters, is comprised of three commissioners each from the U.S. and Canada. They follow a plan that helps determine lake levels which are adjusted by the Moses-Saunders dam at Cornwall, Ontario, and Massena, New York. The dam was built in the 1950s to produce hydropower and permit larger ships to navigate between Montreal and Lake Ontario. Since 1958, the IJC operated under Plan 1958B, which generally kept property along the shore protected from storms, high waves, and flooding. Regardless of the plan’s record of success, environmentalists and others pressured the IJC to create a new management plan — one that promised higher highs and lower lows to favor wildlife, the shipping industry, and hydro power. For years, the proposed plan failed to gain consensus but in the waning days of the Obama administration, the IJC adopted Plan 2014 despite property owners’ consistent opposition.
The plan must be changed and it is imperative that we continue working toward long-term solutions to prevent future flooding. While high precipitation is to blame for some increased water levels, 94 percent of the time since the plan’s inception water levels have been above average. Clearly, rain and snow are not fully responsible for these sustained higher water levels. In tandem with placing pressure on the international board to change Plan 2014, the state needs to provide property owners with more assistance to deal with the immediate effects of the man-made disaster. Homeowners on the lake are faced with compromised structures and unsanitary conditions — making some homes uninhabitable. Right now, they need assurances that they can rebuild. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has formed a new commission to assist affected areas and has pledged to direct $300 million toward efforts to rebuild, but we await details on how and if funding will directly benefit homeowners. At the first commission meeting held recently in Rochester, I once again pushed for homeowners to receive grants from the state, similar to what was provided in 2017.
We recently received some good news on the long-term outlook. Under new direction led by U.S. Chair Jane Corwin — who previously represented shoreline residents in the state Assembly — the IJC will look at ways in which they can let even more water out of the lake. In addition, she visited the White House to discuss the flooding on Lake Ontario and, following that meeting, told the Buffalo News the IJC needs to look at suspending Plan 2014. While it is my understanding that there are many steps to be taken before the IJC can deviate from its plan, the fact that new leadership has acknowledged the plan’s shortcomings is hopefully a sign lakeshore owners will be better represented going forward.
In the meantime, a state of emergency has been declared for the eight counties affected by the floods. As part of that declaration, the Department of Environmental Conservation is expediting permits for shoreline work and the state National Guard has been called to assist some communities. In addition, there are sandbags available at local municipalities. Having been to marinas and visited houses all along the shore, I am aware of the millions of dollars in property loss, lost tourism revenue, and the devastating effect this has had on the entire economy. I understand it is deeply frustrating and I will continue to push for additional resources for property owners to help in rebuilding to protect homes and shorelines from eroding.
William (Will) A. Barclay is the Republican representative of the 120th New York Assembly District, which encompasses most of Oswego County, including the cities of Oswego and Fulton, as well as the town of Lysander in Onondaga County and town of Ellisburg in Jefferson County. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (315) 598-5185.