U.S. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand today called on the International Joint Commission (IJC) to immediately begin an overhaul analysis of its Plan 2014 water management plan now that $1.5 million in federal funding to initiate a review study into Plan 2014’s effectiveness was included in the soon-to-pass bipartisan omnibus spending package. The senators explained that after experiencing record flooding in 2017 and again last year, Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River communities are once again being threatened with sky-high water levels. Lake Ontario’s water level is currently more than 17 inches higher than the long-term monthly average for December, threatening a third year of devastating flooding to homeowners, businesses and communities across the Lake Ontario shorelines. Specifically, Schumer and Gillibrand urged IJC to take immediate steps to get this review study underway to fix and improve Plan 2014’s mechanisms for controlling Lake Ontario’s water levels, such as assessing changes to the current navigation limits so that water outflows can be increased during shipping season, lowering Plan 2014’s trigger levels to allow dam outflow increases sooner, and modifying outflows during the spring and fall to better manage flooding risks.
“After experiencing record flooding in 2017 and again in 2019 with the risk of a repeat next year, it’s clear that Plan 2014 is in need of a major overhaul,” said Senator Schumer. “That’s why I’m urging the IJC, to immediately begin an overhaul analysis of Plan 2014 using the $1.5 million included in the spending package slated to pass this week, to fix and improve the mechanisms to control Lake Ontario’s water level and better fend off this intense, repetitive risk of flooding. With the risk of a repeat escalating further, we must take every sensible measure to protect communities along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.”
“Communities along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River now unfortunately know too well that Plan 2014 is in need of a complete review. While I’m pleased that the soon-to-pass spending bill includes $1.5 million for the IJC, it must use that funding to expeditiously complete a full review and come up with strategies that prevent major flooding along the Lake Ontario and Saint Lawrence River shorelines,” said Senator Gillibrand. “We must have a balanced approach that mitigates flooding, improves the resiliency of the shorelines, and meets our environmental restoration goals, and I will continue to fight to ensure our shoreline communities have the resources they need to protect against future floods.”
The senators argued, the record-setting high waters experienced these years demands that an analysis now be conducted into Plan 2014 to make changes and address the factors that contributed to high water levels, including navigation limits and trigger levels. For example, Schumer and Gillibrand said the analysis should assess changing the normal safe navigation flow limit (L). Last month Schumer argued to the Canadian and U.S. St. Lawrence Seaway Authorities that the fact that this fall, shippers have stopped using some of the additional safety precaution measures they used this summer, indicates that there is further room to safely increase outflows above the current L limit when done in conjunction with enhanced shipping safety measures. Similarly, Plan 2014 established “trigger levels,” so when Lake Ontario waters reach a certain “trigger level” height, the IJC can deviate and stop following Plan 2014 by increasing dam outflows in order to lower Lake Ontario water levels. The senators said the fact that Lake Ontario has so often exceeded the trigger levels necessitates a review to assess changing the trigger level heights to better guard against flooding risks.
The Federal Fiscal Year 2020 spending package, which is expected to pass Congress this week, includes $1.5 million pushed by Schumer and Gillibrand, that, together with matching funding from the Canadian government, will be used to undertake a major analysis of the IJC’s Plan 2014’s effectiveness. The senators argued the review must encompass the significant concerns raised by coastal communities and seek revisions and any necessary adjustments to the current water level management procedures.
Schumer and Gillibrand have been pushing emergency preparation measures along Lake Ontario for years, in the wake of devastating, repetitive flooding. Earlier this year, Schumer traveled to Niagara, Cayuga and Monroe Counties to tour the flooding damage and advocate for funding for the Great Lakes Coastal Resiliency Study, which would seek to identify and suggest fixes for vulnerabilities across the Great Lakes’ shorelines. In March, Schumer voiced his support for the confirmation of Jane L. Corwin, Robert C. Sisson and Lance V. Yohe to the IJC, to ensure the Commission was appropriately staffed to address the rising Lake Ontario water levels, and on May 16 announced their successful confirmation. Also this May, Schumer announced that following his push, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued an official Declaration of Emergency to activate its Emergency Operations Center to join with state and local efforts to assist Lake Ontario communities in the event of flooding. Additionally, Schumer and Gillibrand called on the International Joint Commission (IJC) and International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board of Control to assess and take all actions possible to mitigate flood risks to surrounding communities, including the appropriate maximization of outflows at the Moses-Saunders Dam.
Furthermore, the senators explained, in 2017, many communities along the southern shore of Lake Ontario suffered significant flooding and related property damage, economic dislocation and significant negative impacts to quality of life. Prior to the flooding, Schumer successfully called on the USACE to activate its Emergency Operations Center, allowing the USACE to assist New York State in response efforts and deploy technical assistance teams. Additionally, Schumer helped facilitate a “General Permit”, signed by the USACE and NYSDEC in 2017, as well. Schumer also played a paramount role in securing aid for these communities in the wake of the flooding, including arranging for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deploy two expert federal mitigation teams to Lake Ontario communities to help address the flooding issues and successfully pushing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to issue a major disaster declaration, which enabled federal recovery and repair funding to flow to Jefferson, Niagara, Orleans, Oswego, St. Lawrence, Wayne, Cayuga, and Monroe Counties.