Great Lakes
Gov. Cuomo visited flood zones along Lake Ontario in Jefferson County last week and delivered a storm briefing at Westcott Beach State Park. Photo: Mike Groll, Office of Gov. Cuomo

In high water blame game, IJC says Cuomo is taking "cheap shots"

May 14, 2019 — Water levels on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River are almost two feet above average for this time of year, but they haven’t reached 2017 levels yet. On Sunday, Lake Ontario was still six and a half inches below where it was the same day two years ago, when major flooding hit the region.

But shoreline homeowners and local leaders are anxious. Many are venting their frustrations by invoking an obscure agency - the International Joint Commission, or IJC.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has hammered away at the IJC at every stop along the shoreline while promoting flood preparations. "The IJC’s job is to manage the water flow in the Great Lakes," he said last week near Henderson Harbor in Jefferson County. "By definition when you have flooding, you have failed to manage the water flow."

The IJC can manage water levels, but only so much

The IJC is run bi-nationally by the US and Canada. Each country nominates three commissioners. Its job, as Cuomo says, is, in fact, to manage water flow in the five Great Lakes. It’s that word “manage” that’s the subject of debate.

The docks in Alexandria Bay aren't flooded yet, but the St. Lawrence River is forecast to keep rising. Photo: Emily Russell
The docks in Alexandria Bay aren't flooded yet, but the St. Lawrence River is forecast to keep rising. Photo: Emily Russell

The IJC just doesn’t have much control of the water. There’s just one way the agency can manage the flow of Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, and the St. Lawrence River – by controlling the amount of water that flows through the Moses-Saunders hydropower dam on the St. Lawrence near Massena.

In other words, only that dam can hold back or release downstream all the water from Detroit near the source of Lake Erie, past Cleveland and Buffalo, down Niagara Falls, through Lake Ontario to Watertown, and down the St. Lawrence River, as well as all of the smaller rivers and streams that flow into those water bodies.

Mother Nature is the biggest player, through snowmelt and rain. And right now Lake Erie is at a record high. So that water flows into Lake Ontario and has nowhere to go but through the dam.

A hole in the bucket doesn't stop the water from overflowing

To look at it another way, pretend Lake Ontario is a five-gallon bucket of water. If you punch a little hole in the bottom, the water in the bucket will go down. But if you take a hose and blast water into the bucket, water will still leak out of the hole in the bottom, but the bucket will overflow anyway because there’s too much water going in.

"The simple fact is, you can’t just let the water out and create enough storage on Lake Ontario to prevent floods," says Frank Bevacqua, spokesman for the IJC.

Bevacqua says Cuomo is downplaying the biggest factor - extreme snowmelt, rain, and flooding both upstream and downstream. Regarding his criticism of the IJC, Bevacqua said Cuomo is behaving like a belligerent driver with road rage. "It feels like when you’re stopped at a red light, and the driver behind you thinks that if he honks the horn enough that you’re going to pull out into oncoming traffic."

Reacting to the "new normal" of extreme weather events

In all his rhetoric against the IJC, Cuomo has been saying that it’s not all the IJC’s fault. In Henderson Harbor, he did talk about climate change and extreme precipitation being “the new normal.”

"Look, there is no doubt that Mother Nature plays the significant role here," Cuomo said. "When we’re talking about the 'new normal', we‘re talking about new and different weather patterns."

He went on to say that the flooding of 2017 caught everyone off guard. What he blames the IJC for is not learning from 2017 and avoiding a repeat this spring. Specifically, he said the IJC should have drawn down Lake Ontario last fall or winter so it would be low enough to absorb spring run-off. "Release more water earlier," Cuomo said. "That is the answer!"

But Bevacqua says that's pretty much what the IJC did. Last fall and early winter, the IJC was pushing an “extremely high” flow of water downstream through the dam, Bevacqua says, basically all the water they could fit through that hole in the five-gallon bucket.

"And yet during that same period, late November, early December, Lake Ontario was rising," Bevacqua says. "I think what this shows is that the system is more sensitive to the water supplies coming in to the lake than it is to our ability to regulate the outflow."

The new water levels plan remains a lightning rod

The elephant in the room in the water levels blame game is the new water management plan, known as "Plan 2014". In 2017, the IJC changed the recipe it uses to manage water levels for the first time in 50 years. A lot of homeowners and local and state officials blame the new plan for the flooding.

But two of out three years of flooding is not a long-term set of data. The plan was the product of 15 years of studies involving dozens of scientists across the region. Bevacqua says the IJC has an “adaptive management committee” that is regularly analyzing the latest data and climate change science to adapt the plan on the fly.

The IJC’s U.S. commissioner, Lana Pollack, says Cuomo knows all this. And she says he knows those record highs on Lake Erie and flooding downstream in Quebec are the real problem, not the IJC. She said he’s taking political cheap shots. "That’s what they are. I think Governor Cuomo is looking for somebody to blame and he’s doing so because his constituents are suffering."

Regardless of who is right, the bottom line is people and their property will suffer here if the lake and river flood again.

See NCPR article . . .