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IJC wants water levels to consider eco-system costs

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When spring comes, water levels rise. The spring thaw naturally fills-up lakes and rivers. But you might not know it by looking at Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. For fifty years regulators have been tempering extreme high and low water levels. And shoreline property owners, shippers, and dam operators like it that way. They don't like big fluctuations.

But now a new proposal by the International Joint Commission recommends a more natural approach. Julie Grant reports.

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Julie Grant
Reporter and Producer

The International Joint Commission helps to manage the shared waters along the U.S.-Canadian border. In the 1950s, the IJC approved the construction and operation of a hydropower project, the Moses Saunders Dam.  Its purpose was to produce hydro-electricity. But it also enabled navigation and provided flood protection in Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.

That meant water levels were regulated, to stabilize extreme highs and lows.

In 2000, the Commission started studying effects of stabilizing the levels. They’ve spent a dozen years, and $20-million. Frank Bavacqua is spokesman for the commission. He says they see the problems it’s causing…

"The way that the flows have been regulated has severely impacted the environment in Lake Ontario and the Upper St. Lawrence River. This is something we did not understand in the 1950s, but it’s something we need to address now."

Bavacqua says the current system is particularly bad for shoreline wetlands. Wetlands are a natural way to provide flood protection and clean water. The IJC study shows that the current water regulation has left most wetlands with a mono-culture of cattails, instead of a natural diversity of plants.

"They need occasional high levels and periodically they need low levels to allow the variety of seeds that are in the bank to be exposed to air and to allow a diversity of plants to germinate."

Bavacqua says that’s a big reason why the IJC wants more natural water levels to allow greater highs and lows.

Environmental groups like the idea. Jennifer Caddick is the outgoing director of "Save the River." She says the new plan strikes a good balance.

"It gets us pretty far on the environmetal needs that we’ve been calling for to correct damage, but also is able to make sure other uses, hydropower, property owners, boaters, able to use the system in the ways that they need to."

But some shoreline property owners don’t like the new plan. Ed Leroux is with the group Save our Sodus, on the south shore of the lake near Rochester. He says the Sodus Bay tourist economy depends on stable water levels…

"In Sodus Bay, there’s Sodus point village, which has businesses, restaurants, marinas. Particularly marinas cannot operate if the water’s too low, or if the water’s too high." 

Under the International Joint Commission plan, the water would be allowed to rise 2-point-4 inches above current levels, at most. It would lower the minimum level by 8 inches.

The Commission says those changes will cost south shore property owners more money, about 12-percent more, in terms of costs to maintain and improve shoreline protection structures.

The study found that about 2,400 developed properties, including homes, restaurants, and marinas worth about $500 million, are no more than 6-and-a-half feet above the lake's average level.  This means they’re at risk of flooding in heavy storms.

Ed Leroux says the IJC is “grossly underestimating” the potential costs of the new plan.

"So there’s considerable economic impact to Sodus in particular, the largest bay on the south shore, has not been factored in to the study."

But Jennifer Caddick of Save the River looks at it the opposite way.

"When you compare the current regulation plan to the conditions that would have occurred if we had nothing in place, if we had no dam, no locks or anything to regulate flows. It’s really interesting when you look at that because the property owners along the south shore have been receiving significant benefits in terms of reduced to their shoreline structures. And those benefits won’t be completely removed."

Caddick says the new plan will improve the quality of life for people along the shoreline, as well as for the eco-system. She says top predator species, such as the northern pike, have declined 70-percent since regulation began. But are expected to return by allowing just a few inches of fluctuation in the water levels.

Similar IJC proposals in recent years were withdrawn after protests from shoreline residents and businesses.

The Commission is accepting public comment on the plan, and will host informational sessions this spring. The plan will then be finalized, and sent back out for formal public hearings.

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