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Cattails proliferate in the St. Lawrence River wetland.  Photo: Jenni Werndorf
Cattails proliferate in the St. Lawrence River wetland. Photo: Jenni Werndorf

St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario communities at odds over water levels

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Water levels in the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario have been regulated since the 1950s. Levels have been controlled, so they can't rise too high, or drop too low. But the International Joint Commission wants to change that, because the IJC says it's been bad for the environment.

Many scientists and environmental groups support the IJC's plan to allow the water to flow more naturally. But some lake-shore property owners fear that the high water will wash their homes away. Julie Grant reports. Carlet Cleare of WXXI in Rochester assisted in the production of this story.

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Many homes in Sodus Point village are built close to the Lake Ontario shoreline.  Photo: Carlet Cleare

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It’s a windy day on the eastern shore of the St. Lawrence River.  Edward Martindale, a mechanic at Bay Side Marina in Clayton, is lowering a small fishing boat into the water.  He’s at the public boat launch, because he can’t do it at the marina…

“This boat, last year, we would have been able to launch over there.  But this year we don’t have enough water to launch this boat, already…you know what I mean?”

There was so little snow this winter, that there wasn’t much to thaw and runoff into the River and the Lake.  Even though the water levels are managed, people like  Martindale are used to living with uncertainty like this.

But now there’s a new plan to regulate the water levels.  It would allow the water to flow more naturally, allowing for higher highs and lower lows.  And it’s adding new levels of uncertainty.

“What would natural levels be then?  Would the natural level be 3 feet lower, or 3 feet higher?  I don’t know what the natural level would have been.”

Twyla Webb isn’t sure how these low spring levels would be different under the proposed water level plan.  Webb is a boater, and member of a Water Levels Coalition.  She worries that a more natural water flow might lower levels in the river enough some years to shorten the boating season.  But her group still endorses the new plan…

“We do understand in the middle of the summer, we may have lower levels.  But we’ll have to deal with that.  I think that along the river and the lake, we’ll all have to accept various compromises in order to bring back our environment and to play fair with everyone along the river.”

In this area, around Clayton and Alexandria Bay, the new plan has a lot of support.  Everyone from the Chamber of Commerce to the Labor council, art galleries, and even boating groups…

The economy here depends on tourism, especially people who want to boat and fish.  That means the region depends on the survival of the fish and birds that come with a diverse habitat.

Jennifer Caddick is director of Save the River, a group that’s been involved with this issue for more than a decade.  We’re standing next to a wetland area, just east of the St. Lawrence River.  There are birds and butterflies, we’ve even seen some big black snakes. 

“To, sort of the naked eye, it looks kind of nice.  There’s a windy creek, spring green colors.”

There used to be a diversity of sedges and grasses here.  But under the current water levels plan, the water never gets low enough to expose the soil.  Caddick says most plants can’t grow anymore.  Instead, we’re looking at acre after acre of one plant – invasive cattails.

“But if you imagine a fish trying to go through there, and he or she is coming up creek, and they’re just running into this wall of cattails.  It’s hard to get back in there and find a nice little place to lay your eggs, and imagine this repeated by tens of thousands of acres throughout the basin, and sort of the scale of the change that the water current water levels plan has had on the system is really quite astonishing.”

Caddick says people love fishing for northern pike, but the population has plummeted under the current plan.  And this isn’t just her opinion.  The International Joint Commission has spent 12 years and 20-million dollars studying the impact of water regulation in this region…

“They’re not developing this new plan on a whim.  There have been over 180 scientists, policy officials, citizens, in making the new plan.  And they’ve spent thorough amount of time looking at the science behind water level regulation, potential impacts to user groups, and trying to find a potential balance to all users on the system here.”

But some property owners on the south shore of Lake Ontario are dead-set against the plan.

“It’s a disaster waiting to happen.  There’s no question about it.”

Michael Sullivan is mayor of the village of Sodus Point, about a half an hour’s drive east of Rochester.  There’s only one road leading out to his waterfront community, with its quaint business district of marinas and restaurants, and its mix of upscale new homes with older ones.

Sullivan worries about the new plan, known as Bv7, because it will allow for higher water levels…

 “If Bv7 goes into place, there’s no question that they’ll be massive flooding and destruction of homes and businesses.  And I think most dangerously we will probably end up having to shut down the sewer system in the village of Sodus Point.”

The new plan only allows water levels to rise 2.4 inches above the current regulation.  But Sullivan says that’s enough to do a lot of damage.

Sound…

Walking by the lake shore, he shows off houses along the Lake.  They have a beautiful view.  But some are only a few feet from the water line.  Sullivan points across the bay, to a small peninsula lined with cottages…

“This whole area here will be breached with high water and waves.  And a lot of those homes will be lost.”

Doug Wilcox is a wetlands professor at nearby SUNY Brockport, and supports the new, more natural water flows.  He says it will help restore the wetlands, which are essential to the health of the Lake Ontario.

Wilcox says people built homes on the south shore during times of low water, even though they knew levels would eventually rise…

 “They built their house in the wrong place and they expect the government to subsidize them for doing so.”

This is a major flashpoint in this debate.  Sodus Point Mayor Matt Sullivan says people built based an agreement that would regulate water levels into the future…

 “That was a promise, that’s a treaty.  So all of our infrastructure, homes, lakeshore revetments were all based on that promise, that guarantee.  It wasn’t a period of low water.  So…but it’s okay then for those houses to be destroyed?”

The International Joint Commission has not secured any funding to help property owners cope with the additional risks. 

Mayor Sullivan says his small village alone has more than 20-million dollars in property at risk.  These questions will be front and center as the International Joint Commission holds a series public information sessions on the new plan over the next month.

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