Saving a river: Plan 2014 seen as major win for St. Lawrence River dwellers

AMANDA MORRISON / NNY BUSINESS

A long-awaited and much-debated plan to regulate water levels on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River was adopted by the U.S. and Canadian governments Dec. 8. Clayton’s Save the River was among the groups that pushed for nearly two decades for an updated regulation strategy. We sat down with the organization’s executive director, Lee Willbanks, to talk about the environmental and economic impacts of Plan 2014.

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St. Lawrence Distillery owners Jody Garrett, left, and his son, Bill, in the taproom at the Clayton facility. Photo by Stephen Swofford, NNY Business.

Saint Lawrence Spirits owners Jody Garrett, left, and his son, Bill, in the taproom at the Clayton facility. Photo by Stephen Swofford, NNY Business.

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Calendar – January 2016

Community/Business Calendar

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South shore lawmakers urge John Kerry to block Plan 2014

A charter crew passes by a cargo ship this summer on the St. Lawrence River, Ogdensburg. Melanie Kimbler-Lago / Watertown Daily Times

Southern Lake Ontario lawmakers are calling on U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry to block the implementation of a new flow plan for the lake and St. Lawrence River.

Set to replace a half-century-old water regulation plan, the U.S.-Canadian International Joint Commission’s “Plan 2014” proposal has drawn criticism from eastern and southern lakeshore communities because of increased risks of flooding and coastal property damage. [Read more…]

IJC gathers feedback on new lake-river regulation proposal in Alex Bay

From left, Co-Chairwoman Lana Pollack, Co-Chairman Joseph Comuzzi and Commissioner Richard Moy listen to Jan Joyce explain the impact of low water levels during the International Joint Commission’s public hearing on the Plan 2014 lake-river water management proposal Wednesday at Bonnie Castle Resort. Amanda Morrison/ Watertown Daily Times

Top decision makers with the U.S.-Canada International Joint Commission were urged — once again — to update an obsolete, half-century-old water regulation plan that had “devastated” Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River’s ecosystem.

More than 200 people sat in the audience at Bonnie Castle Resort on Wednesday as area officials, lifelong “river rats” and environmentalists took turns advocating for the IJC’s Plan 2014 water management proposal that is expected to restore wetlands while maintaining many benefits for other stakeholders along the lake and river.

“The current plan has damaged our ecosystem, hopefully not beyond repair,” said Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, who threw her full support behind the new proposal that would introduce “more natural water flows” and help reverse the environmental damage.

She and many others pointed out that action is long overdue.

Quoting baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, D. Lee Willbanks, head of Save the River, Clayton, told IJC commissioners Wednesday night that “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”

He was referring to the numerous IJC meetings — a few of which took place at Bonnie Castle — held to gather feedback to rewrite the current management plan, 1958-DD.

Even the IJC acknowledges that the current plan was drafted to serve the interest of commercial navigation, hydropower production and waterfront properties.

Recreational boating and the environment — on which the area’s tourism-driven industry depends heavily — were never recognized as stakeholders.

The plan drafted at the time aimed to “compress” the natural fluctuations of the lake and river without an understanding of its environmental impact.

But unlike 1958-DD, which tries to keep water levels relatively stable within a 4-foot range — 243.3 feet to 247.3 feet — throughout the year, Plan 2014 allows for a greater variability in water levels while introducing seasonal “trigger levels” that allow regulators to deviate from the plan and take “extraordinary actions.”

IJC projects that with Plan 2014, levels could be 4 inches higher on average under an extremely high water supply scenario and 7 inches lower on average under an unusually low supply situation compared with the current plan.

For residents of the south and eastern shore of Lake Ontario, however, higher water levels mean an increased risk of flood and erosion damage.

“This plan scares me,” said Michael Fleszar, Sandy Creek. “When you get 25-foot waves on that lake with no protection, it destroys the beaches and the dunes.”

“A 25-foot wave will damage pretty much any structure manmade or natural,” Mr. Willbanks said in an email to the Times in response to Mr. Fleszar’s comments.

The IJC will hold two more hearings — in Montreal this evening and in Cornwall, Ontario, on Friday — and will accept written comments until Aug. 30.

Also part of the IJC’s new proposal is an “adaptive management strategy” that will be funded by the U.S. and Canadian governments to allow the commission to better monitor trends in water supply and evaluate its water regulation plan more frequently.

The commission hopes to seek concurrence from the two federal governments, which have the final say, this fall.

For more information, visit the IJC’s website: http://ijc.org/en_/losl

-Jaegun Lee, Watertown Daily Times