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Green groups are hoping the new water levels plan improves wetlands along the St. Lawrence River. Photo: Jenni Werndorf
Green groups are hoping the new water levels plan improves wetlands along the St. Lawrence River. Photo: Jenni Werndorf

After decades, major breakthrough on water levels for Lake Ontario, St. Lawrence

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Standing between Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River is a dam that a lot of people say operates under outdated rules.

The regulations for the Moses-Saunders Dam between Cornwall and Massena haven't changed since the 1950s. For over a decade, lawmakers and activists have said that the rules on water levels have harmed wetlands, fish and wildlife, and even the tourism economy.

They've tried and failed to find a way of reversing that damage. Last year, officials came up with a new concept, called Plan 2014. Yesterday the International Joint Commission unanimously endorsed it.

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Reported by

Zach Hirsch
Reporter and Producer

Plan 2014 proposes to do what a lot of environmental advocates have been calling for: It would let water flow more naturally from Lake Ontario into the St. Lawrence River.

"We're not going to go back to the wild extremes that nature would provide us," says Lee Willbanks, the executive director of Save the River, a prominent environmental group based in Clayton. "In years when there's greater input to the lakes and to the river you would see higher levels, just like you would have seen naturally."

Willbanks says the current rules artificially constrain Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, so that the water level can't rise or fall more than four feet. That rule is rigid, he says, and it's been ecologically devastating.

"We've seen roughly 64,000 acres of wetlands that were once productive parts of the ecosystem become unproductive," Willbanks says. "Northern pike aren't able to spawn where they once were able to."

He says he's excited about the IJC's approval of Plan 2014. It would give a special group, appointed to oversee the Moses-Saunders Dam, more discretion over when to release water from Lake Ontario.

"The biggest change is providing the board the direct authority to deviate upon reaching those trigger levels that are defined in the plan on a week by week basis," says Dereth Glance of the IJC. In a teleconference yesterday, she said Plan 2014 would likely raise the water levels slightly higher than usual in the Spring, and that's going to cost Canadian and U.S. taxpayers who live on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence. She says shoreline residents would have to pay 13% more per year to keep their beaches and yards from getting flooded.  

Glance says Plan 2014 means putting a little money upfront to prevent more expensive environmental damage down the road. But many shoreline residents don't share that vision at all.   

"Plan 2014 is just a – a rehash. It's like putting lipstick on an old, ugly plan, and have everybody kind of kiss it now," says Jack Steinkamp. He's the founder of the Lake Ontario Riparian Alliance, a group that advocates for waterfront property values. He fears the new plan will cost more, and cause more damage than the IJC predicts.  

"The regulation of the south shore has been so severe, and we've had to build things according to certain levels. And now those levels have all changed. So everything that's been built has the potential to be compromised," Steinkamp says.

"There are strong opinions, held by some. And it's loud," Glance says, adding that the IJC's 14 years of research and public outreach gives her confidence in the plan.

"It's our job as an international treaty-based organization to consider all interests, protect those established uses and interests, recognize things that were not apparent in the 50s – like how important the environment is to us, how important the recreational boating community is, especially to upstate New York, and the Thousand Islands region – in the most fair and balanced way possible. And that's what we believe we've done," Glance says.

She says the IJC has submitted the plan to the U.S. and Canadian governments, and the ball is in their court now. The commission hopes to hear back soon – but there isn't a firm deadline.

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