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The six commissioners of the International Joint Commission took testimony from more than two dozen people last night in Alexandria Bay. Photo: David Sommerstein.
The six commissioners of the International Joint Commission took testimony from more than two dozen people last night in Alexandria Bay. Photo: David Sommerstein.

River residents give water levels plan thumbs up

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There were no surprises last night at a public hearing in Alexandria Bay about managing water levels on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. More than 150 area residents overwhelmingly supported a new plan that would restore wetlands, fish and wildlife, and lengthen the boating season.

The Jefferson and St. Lawrence county legislatures both support the plan. Assemblywoman Addie Russell spoke in favor, as did influential green group Save The River.

And there were no surprises the night before near Rochester, either, where residents of the south shore of Lake Ontario railed against the plan for the damage it could do to their property.

But as David Sommerstein reports, what emerged last night were personal stories that illustrate what's at stake, and the challenge the agency in charge of making the decision faces.

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The St. Lawrence sparkled out the windows of Bonnie Castle resort as people testified before the International Joint Commission, hoping to sway the waterways’ fate.

Doug Fugel remembered living on Lake Ontario before the St. Lawrence Seaway was built and the current water levels plan was put in place. That plan’s called 1958D after the year it was implemented.

You could walk down the Greenpoint Road and on the right hand side was a swamp, a wetland, and the spring of the year, you could watch the northern pike come in there and spawn and little by little after 1958D, that just disappeared and no pike spawning in there because of the change in the water levels.

Ken White was one of many boaters who recalled having to pull out a month early last summer because the water was more than three feet too low.

When I said goodbye at the island, I looked directly at the boat cleat, standing in my boat. The dock was up here.

One by one people catalogued the environmental and economic damage done by what they called a “50 year mistake”. And they pressed the IJC to adopt its new water levels plan, Plan 2014. The IJC says it would restore 64,000 acres of wetlands, boost northern pike, black tern, and muskrat populations, and extend the boating season in the late summer by an average of two weeks. Ron Thompson is with the Alexandria Bay Chamber of Commerce.

Plan 2014 is a compromise that is good for the environment and allows us to hold on to the water we do have a little longer into the fall. What we cannot afford is to spend another ten years debating the replacement to 1958D.

The compromise has been in the works ever since this 25 million dollar water levels overhaul began in 2000. And it has to do with protecting the shoreline homes along the south shore of Lake Ontario from spring storms and huge waves. The existing plan did that well for 50 years. This new plan would establish a trigger to act quickly if the Lake went above or below certain levels, and it creates an adaptive management strategy to tweak the plan over the years.

But at public hearings near Buffalo and Rochester earlier this week, south shore residents decried Plan 2014. According to the Buffalo News, several people said it puts “muskrats and cattails” above humans and home values.

Two people spoke last night about potential south shore property damage. But demonstrating the complexity of the system and the difficulty of the decision facing the IJC, Mike Frezar said Plan 2014 threatens the environment, too — specifically the barrier dunes of Lake Ontario. Frezar said warmer winters from climate change have meant less berm ice buildup on the dunes. And no ice means greater exposure to bigger storm surges.

This plan scares me if we have another winter that’s warm, with no berm ice to protect us from those gales, it will destroy these dunes and they do not come back readily. I’ve lived there my whole life.

The IJC still has public meetings today in Montreal and tomorrow in Cornwall. And it’s accepting public comment until August 30th. IJC commissioner Lana Pollack said nothing’s final yet.

As I have said, the cake is not baked, and we will not make a decision until we’ve heard from everybody.

But self-proclaimed river rat Steven Sarfaty carried the overwhelming message from Alexandria Bay – that after 50 years of the environment taking a back seat, it’s time for the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario to at least ride shotgun.

This river’s going to give and it’s going to take away and that’s never going to change, that’s a reality and it’s sometimes hard for each of us in our individual interests to get used to that. The fact of the matter is that the highest best interest of all of the considerations and complexities that you have to take into account is simply based on the health of this river.

The IJC says it hopes to make a final recommendation to the U.S. and Canadian governments by the end of the year.

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