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Source: Politico

Cuomo's attack on Lake Ontario water management riles supporters


Posted: May 31, 2017
Originally Published: May 30, 2017

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo's criticism of an international board that controls the water level in Lake Ontario has drawn a stiff response from the board's secretary and environmentalists who supported a new management plan.

"If we were to have released more water out of the dam earlier, that would have caused even more flooding downstream (in Montreal), and for what? The lake level would still have been high — maybe an inch or so less," said Gail Faveri, the Canadian secretary for the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board.

Cuomo attacked the International Joint Commission, which oversees the board, on Monday. The board controls the flow of water out of the Moses-Saunders Power Dam, which sits astride the border between the U.S. and Canada on the St. Lawrence River. Let more water out, and the level of water in Lake Ontario goes down while the water rises downstream in Montreal.

Communities in New York on the shores of Lake Ontario have experienced flooding that has damaged homes and businesses. Cuomo was speaking in Greece in Monroe County, where the National Guard was called in to assist. But flooding has also caused evacuations around Montreal — and Faveri said the board cannot increase outflows, which are already at the highest average weekly level in the dam's history, without causing more problems there.

"This week there would still be flooding downstream in Montreal if we increased the flow, there are all these rainstorms predicted and the Ottawa River is still high," Faveri said.

Letting more water out of the massive Lake Ontario has less of an impact on the lake level while increasing water levels downstream more dramatically, Faveri said.

A general rule of thumb, according to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Keith Koralewski, is that increasing outflows by 300 cubic meters per second over the course of a week would drop Lake Ontario's level by about a centimeter or less than an inch, while increasing the level in Montreal by 18 centimeters or about 7 inches. Koralewski serves as a technical adviser to the board.

Cuomo said the International Joint Commission "blew it" and accused the board of prioritizing shipping interests in their decisions.

"I don't believe the federal government's appointees are doing enough to defend the United States and defend New York," Cuomo said Monday. "I don't buy their current rationale — that they can't lower the lake because they're going to cause navigational issues for shipping — this can't go on."

But Koralewski said shipping concerns have not had an impact on the level of outflows yet, because the main issue has been the flooding downstream in Montreal. Going above the 10,200 cubic meter per second average weekly outflow the dam is currently out would shut down shipping, he said, but the board has not yet had the opportunity to decide whether to do that.

"Outflows have not been restricted due to shipping at this point," he said. Letting out water earlier in the season was also not an option because it risked interference with ice formation on the river and could have caused ice jams that would have resulted in flooding, the IJC said in a statement.

Some local officials and residents along Lake Ontario have taken issue with a new water management plan which allows water levels to fluctuate higher and lower to reflect the natural rhythms of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. Environmental groups supported the plan because of its potential to restore wetlands, while opponents were concerned about flooding and erosion on Lake Ontario.

Experts agree the current flooding is primarily the result of high rainfall and snowmelt, not the new management system called Plan 2014. That includes New York Department of Environmental Conservation's Ken Lynch who said last week the primary cause of flooding was the weather.

Both sides on the issue had asked Cuomo's administration to take a position on Plan 2014, but there was never any official stance on the issue until Cuomo said at the beginning of May that he didn't support it. Now, Cuomo's attacks on the IJC are infuriating environmental advocates.

"That lake and the St. Lawrence Seaway, and all of the communities around it should be treated the same. To lower the lake level artificially, to call on the IJC to immediately ignore the plan and flood Montreal — that's not what we're looking for from the leader of our state," said Citizens Campaign for the Environment's Bill Cooke. "If we want narrow, me-me-me focused thoughts, we'll call Trump."

Cooke said Cuomo has been a national leader on environmental issues and should continue to be one. He said the lack of concern for flooding in Canada reflected "isolationist thinking."

"To say let's lower the lake and flood Montreal, I'm just hoping he was having a bad day, because that's not consistent with how this administration handles tough environmental issues," he said.

Save the River's executive director Lee Willbanks said Cuomo's administration "dropped the ball" by not weighing in on Plan 2014. The group, which focuses on the St. Lawrence River, has some Canadian members, Willbanks said.

"To say to them, your flooding doesn't matter, it's just not right," he said.

Faveri suggested one possible explanation for Cuomo's criticism of the IJC, emphasizing that it was her personal opinion and she was not speaking for the board.

"Mr. Cuomo was talking to the people he was talking to, and trying to get votes," she said. "If he was talking to me he would say something else if he wanted my vote — but I'm a Canadian.”