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A dock in Morristown last month, posted by Susan Steffen LaRue to Save the River's Facebook page.
A dock in Morristown last month, posted by Susan Steffen LaRue to Save the River's Facebook page.

Thousand Islands boaters nervous as water level dips

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The sun and warm temperatures are starting to bring boaters back to the St. Lawrence River. But especially in the Thousand Islands, they're being greeted by unusually low water levels. A dry winter and warm spring across the Great Lakes is mostly to blame. But that hasn't stopped lawmakers on both sides of the border from clamoring for a new system for controlling water flows. David Sommerstein reports.

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The numbers are pretty grim.  LakeOntario and the upper St. Lawrence River are a foot below average, a foot and a half lower than this time last year.  The river's so low the St. Lawrence Seaway has had to restrict the depth of ships' drafts between Massena and Montreal.  And get this - Montreal's harbor is six feet below average - a new record for this time of year.

Yesterday, the binational agency that regulates the water flows held an unusual press conference over the phone...

We don't do many conference calls like this with the media, but, uh..

But boaters, marinas, shippers, tourism officials - everybody's nervous about what this summer holds.

International St. Lawrence River Board of Control chairman Jim Vollmershausen said, quite simply, it's Mother Nature's fault.

There was much less snow accumulation this winter, and the runoff fro that snow occurred earlier than usual in March.  There was also very little rain in April and less runoff than usual.  In total, the precipitation that fell on the LakeOntario watershed from January to April of this year was the lowest amount for that four month period since those records began in 1900.

Vollmershausen said there's not much the Board can do. 

David Fay, one of the Board's technical guys, says they're holding back as much water as they can at the power dam in Massena.  In fact, the part of the river in Lisbon, Waddington, and Louisville - just before the dam - is actually a touch above average.

Fay forecast the river will rise about 4 inches by August.  But he acknowledged people are anxious.

We have heard from many boaters and property owners in the Thousand Islands concerned about access to their properties and their boats because of the rocky nature of the shoreline there.

Marinas in the Thousand Islands are already seeing a big difference.

There's a lot more rocks around that weren't around last year or the year before.

Bobby Foster's a mechanic at Chaulk's marina in Fisher's Landing.  He says boaters are starting to arrive for the season and they're not liking what they see.

They're worried about wacking their motors on the rocks, y'know.  "Is it kinda good business for you because you're going to be fixing more boats?"  Yeah, but still, any service work's good work but it still sucks.

Thousand Islands tourism officials are already nervous about this summer, with New York possibly closing four state parks.

Assemblywoman Addie Russell's been fighting to keep them open.  She represents the Thousand Islands.  She says she most concerned about losing precious water to places with bigger populations.

I don't want us to get some rain in our area, and then they say, oh great, we can use that in Montreal.  Y'know, we need to keep our water level where it is for as long as we can.

The dry conditions come at a sensitive moment in the politics of water levels.  The U.S. and Canada are stalled over a plan to change the way flows are managed in LakeOntario and the St. Lawrence.

All New York lawmakers, along with their colleagues in southern Ontario, favor a system that restores more natural ebbs and flows to the river, like before the Seaway project was built.  That plan would be far better for the environment and for ThousandIsland boaters.  Dalton Foster of the International Water Levels Coalition says it would help today, too.

We would be a little bit below average even in pre-project, cause that's the type of year it is.  But we wouldn't be as low as we are right now.

Under the current system, LakeOntario was drawn down last fall to protect shoreline homes in Rochester from winter storms.  That water also helped raise levels in Montreal's harbor.

So right now, you have Montreal and Rochester versus everyone else in the water levels battle.  St. Lawrence River International Board of Control chairman Jim Vollmershausen says the state, provincial, and federal governments hope to work out those differences soon.

I'm not sure exactly what soon means, but I know there's an awful lot of interest in drawing that whole process to a close.

As stakeholders await the outcome of those talks, the message is simple.  Watch for rocks.  And pray for rain.

For North Country Public Radio, I'm David Sommerstein.

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