Council of Great Lakes Industries on TwitterCouncil of Great Lakes Industries on LinkedIn

Record high water levels in the Great Lakes create controversy for IJC’s Plan 2014

In December 2016, the U.S. and Canada approved the International Joint Commission’s new plan for regulating water levels on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. The plan, which is known as “Plan 2014,” changes the regulation of outflows from the Moses-Saunders hydroelectric dam on the St. Lawrence River. The new plan, which cost the U.S. and Canadian governments more than $20 million and was finalized after 16 years of planning and research, allows more ebb and flow of water in Lake Ontario to mimic natural processes that create shoreline wetlands and habitat for fish and other wildlife. Environmental groups supported the plan because they believed it would lengthen the fishing and boating season on Lake Ontario and generate as much as $12 million per year in new economic activity. Residents of the Lake Ontario shoreline opposed the plan because they feared that the “higher highs” in water levels contemplated by the plan would cause more flooding and shoreline erosion.

Plan 2014 has proven controversial. Warmer winter temperatures in January and February reduced evaporation on the lakes, resulting in a significant rise in water levels. Heavy rainfall in March and April exacerbated the already high water levels; rainfall in April was 50% above average in the Lake Ontario basin and 150% above average in the Ottawa River basin, which flows into the St. Lawrence River. Across the basin, water levels continued to rise through May. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) estimated that the levels will peak this month as much as 18 inches higher than last summer.

Flooding and high water levels caused significant damage along the shores of lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. High waters destroyed public and private breakwalls, flooded homes and commercial buildings, and closed roads and beaches. Residents in western New York and southern Ontario used sandbags to keep the waters of Lake Ontario at bay, and New York Governor Cuomo declared a state of emergency. Flooding of the St. Lawrence River affected Toronto and Montreal, where some communities were forced to evacuate residents and issue boil water alerts. By May, cargo ships in the St. Lawrence were required to reduce vessel speed and implement other precautions to navigate strong currents and ensure that wake action did not cause further damage to shorelines.

The IJC and the USACE acknowledge that regulating outflows from Lake Ontario through the Moses-Saunders Dam can be tricky. Outflows were held stable early in the rainy season until the St. Lawrence River could accept the extra water. By the end of May, regulators had increased the amount of water flowing through the Moses-Saunders Dam to lower water levels in Lake Ontario, and by mid-June the flow rate over the dam was increased to 10,400 cubic meters (2.75 million gallons) per second, the highest flow rate ever permitted. Within a few weeks, the water level in Lake Ontario had fallen more than four inches and the water level at Montreal had fallen almost six inches.

Businesses, property owners affected by the high water, and Governor Cuomo blame Plan 2014 for the damage and have threatened to take action against the IJC. They claim that the IJC let water levels get too high before the spring rains and did not react swiftly enough to prevent damage. On July 7, Governor Cuomo called on President Trump to “revamp the IJC” by replacing the current commissioners with appointees “who know what they are talking about and who know the Great Lakes.” The IJC counters that the water from Lake Ontario was not released sooner because it could have inundated communities along the St. Lawrence that already were dealing with flood damage.