Lake Ontario Water Levels: Mixing Science with Politics
Posted on: May 15, 2017
After the floods: May 2, 2017 photo of Lake Ontario shoreline taken by Gov. Cuomo’s office, Rochester, NY.

For meteorologists, high-water levels and flooding on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River have a simple explanation. Rain, and plenty of it, which has drenched the region for weeks, as well as the water from melting snow all throughout the vast Ottawa River watershed.

However, U.S. congressmen Chris Collins (R-New York) and John Katko (R-New York), whose districts border Lake Ontario’s southern shore, blame a different culprit – a recently implemented Canada-US protocol regulating the levels of Lake Ontario’s water.

The representatives, both Republican, have asked President Trump to withdraw from the bilateral agreement, known as Plan 2014. Plan 2014 came into effect in January under the International Joint Commission, the body that oversees transboundary waters and the Areas of Concern. Among other goals, Plan 2014 seeks to improve wetlands by allowing for more variability in water levels – a point that the congressmen portrayed as a questionable benefit linked to former President Obama.

“This controversial and ill-conceived plan was passed at the end of the previous administration and is already wreaking havoc on communities in Central and Western New York,” they wrote in an open letter to Mr. Trump.

“The reality is that this situation has absolutely nothing to do with Plan 2014,” says Robert Campany, a U.S. member of the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board based in Clayton, N.Y. The board, which operates under the auspices of the Joint Commission, can adjust water levels by changing the outflow from the Moses-Saunders hydroelectric dam near Cornwall, Ont.

While Plan 2014 will increase variability in lake level over the long term, he said, the way it is being applied this spring is identical to what would have occurred a year ago when the former plan was still in effect. The reason is that Lake St.-Louis, where the Ottawa and St. Lawrence rivers meet near Montreal, is already swollen with rainwater and spring runoff. Lowering Lake Ontario, with its large surface area, by just one centimetre would translate into a 10-centimetre rise in Lake St.-Louis.

“It’s a balancing act,” Mr. Campany said. “Unfortunately there’s no easy answer to make everyone happy.”

That logic did not stop New York’s Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, from appealing to the Joint Commission last week to release additional water through the dam (he made no mention of the potential downstream effects on Montreal).

Whatever happens to Plan 2014, a key question is what to expect as climate change increasingly affects the various factors that influence lake levels.

Plan 2014 – Water levels on Lake Ontario and St Lawrence River (Text)

Read more here (The Globe and Mail) or here (National Post) …


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