Gov. Cuomo blames IJC 'blunders' for Lake Ontario flooding; IJC responds

The IJC asserts that record rainfall, not its decisions, are responsible for the high water levels in Lake Ontario./ CNYCentral file photo

In the midst of criticism from several lakeshore communities and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, the international committee that oversees water levels in Lake Ontario is defending its decision making over the last several months.

Governor Cuomo has become a vocal critic of the International Joint Commission and a controversial set of regulations known as Plan 2014; in May he said "There's no doubt that the IJC blew it - I mean they blew it. I don't even see how you can debate that," a comment that he repeated last week while touring flood damaged areas in Sodus Point.

In a letter to the IJC dated May 28, 2017, the governor reiterated that criticism and said the problems along the Lake Ontario shoreline "are a direct result of a series of blunders perpetrated by the IJC."

If you're reading this article on the mobile app, click here to read Gov. Cuomo's letter to the IJC.

Water levels in the Lake reached record highs in 2017; compounding the problem was flooding on the other side of the dam in Montreal, which for weeks limited the amount of water that could be released through the Moses-Saunders Dam in Massena.

In his letter, Cuomo contends that the IJC should have released more water through the dam in 2016 to avoid flooding in 2017. "Similarly, directing the Control Board to lower water levels in March 2017 - before the April storms began - could have ensured lower water levels today," a portion of the letter reads.

However, in a letter responding to Governor Cuomo, the IJC asserts that record rainfall, not its decisions, are responsible for the high water levels in Lake Ontario. "The primary difference between last year and this is that, unlike last year’s near average water supplies, from April 2017 onward, this year’s supplies to Lake Ontario in April and May were record setting," a portion of the letter cosigned by U.S. Chair Lana Pollack and Canadian Chair Gordon Walker reads. "Combined April and May supplies set a new record high for any two consecutive months, while last month’s supplies also set a new record high for May.

"The capacity to forecast such conditions currently does not exist."

If you're reading this article on the mobile app, click here to read the IJC's letter to Gov. Cuomo.

The IJC says before the record influx of water into Lake Ontario (which it says comes from rain, runoff and flows from Lake Erie), water levels in Lake Ontario were not above normal, as the governor and others have contended.

The commission says in mid-March, before the "record setting" water supply into the the lake, the water level of Lake Ontario was within half an inch of the level recorded at the same time in 2016. Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration backs up that claim; the NOAA's record of monthly average water levels in Lake Ontario shows water levels from December 2016 to March 2017 were very similar to the same period one year earlier:

  • December 2015: 244.32 feet | December 2016: 244.29 feet
  • January 2016: 244.85 feet | January 2017: 244.82 feet
  • February 2016: 245.44 feet | February 2017: 245.47 feet
  • March 2016: 245.96 feet | March 2017: 246.06 feet

The NOAA's recorded water levels deviate significantly starting in April - which the IJC says should be attributed to amount of water coming into Lake Ontario. "The difference between the years is not because of the plan implemented, but because of the inputs received since mid-March," the commission's letter asserts.

As water levels on the other side of the Moses-Saunders Dam have decreased, the IJC has since upped the outflow from the dam. "Weekly outflows now surpass the previous record maximum," the letter states. The IJC says the combination of higher outflow and drier weather has allowed water levels in Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River to decline in June.

As Gov. Cuomo points out in his letter, New York has dedicated $22 million to help homeowners, small businesses and municipalities affected by the flooding. The state has also pioneered new solutions to flooding, such as portable dams that were unveiled last week.

In its letter to the governor, the IJC applauds the efforts to help those affected, but also warns that lakeshore communities should be ready for more in the future.

"We encourage you to urge everyone to be prepared to live within the full range of lake levels that have occurred historically and of those that may occur in the future," the letter reads. "Future climate conditions are uncertain, and even more extreme water levels may be reached and may occur more often, regardless of the regulation plan in effect at the time. The decisions people make when rebuilding after this disaster should be well informed.

"Our coastal development needs to withstand extreme conditions, which are likely to occur again in the future," the letter concludes.

On Monday Governor Andrew Cuomo's office issued the following statement in response to the IJC's letter:

The facts are clear: The IJC had the ability to conduct proper long-range forecasting and release more water from Lake Ontario before the April storms began. They failed to do both. While the Governor has repeatedly called on the IJC to significantly increase outflows from the lake, the Commission seems determined to continue prioritizing commercial shipping interests over the safety of thousands of residents and families. We will continue to hold the IJC fully accountable.
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