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Source: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

Changing lake levels a concern

Regulation change could bring water even farther inland

BY MEAGHAN M. MCDERMOTT
STAFF WRITER

Posted: June 12, 2013
Originally Published: June 12, 2013

HAMLIN — When Cheryl and Bob Stevens built their dream home on the Lake Ontario shore in 2005, nearly 70 feet of beach stretched between their back porch and the water line.

“But that first winter we moved in, we just had all these west winds, and the lake took all of that away, the whole 67 feet,” said Cheryl Stevens. “And, there was 25 feet of that that we’d covered with dirt and planted grass, and it took all of that away too.”

In 2012, Stevens counted 71 separate times the lake came far enough inland that waves battered the concrete of her home’s foundation.

“We know it’s strong, we joke that the house is built like a cruise ship, but when we built, none of us could predict that we would end up having water right up against the house as much as we have,” she said.

At issue for the Stevens — and many other lakeshore residents — are plans by the U.S.-Canadian panel that oversees the lake’s levels to revise its regulatory guidelines, which have remained unchanged since the late 1950s.

The International Joint Commission on Thursday will release a new proposal for managing water levels and flows on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. This will be the sixth time the agency has released such a proposal since it began working to revise the 1958 guidelines more than a decade ago.

Frank Bevacqua, agency spokesman, said the IJC will release a revised version of a proposal released in January 2012, commonly known as BV7. That plan, lauded by conservationists, called for more natural fluctuations in the lake’s levels.

But it was decried by property owners along the lake’s southern shores as relying on old data and possibly accelerating erosion, damaging seawalls and endangering vital infrastructure.

“I think they have to go back to the drawing board because their data is inaccurate,” said lake resident Dan Barletta of Greece, noting that previously IJC has said higher highs and lower lows could lead to as much as $4.5 million in additional annual property damage costs. He said that figure relied on assessment data that’s now a decade old. “At the very least, I think they’re going to have to spread the damages around lake so there’s no disproportionate loss to any one sector. This $4.5 million for the southern side of the lakeshore is a disproportionate loss.”

While he would not divulge any specifics, Bevacqua said the plan slated for release Thursday “does address the needs of all the interests in the basin as required under the treaty, responds to comments we heard and does perform better for the coastal residents.”

But conservation groups say there’s already been disproportionate loss for the ecosystem.

“The current plan has decimated the habitats along the lake and river,” said Brian Smith, spokesman for Citizens Campaign for the Environment, a grass-roots group that strongly supports the BV7 proposal. “Going back to more natural levels and flows means restoring tens of thousands of acres of critical habitat.”

Jim Howe, executive director of the Nature Conservancy of Central and Western New York, said the BV7 plan was a “modern, balanced approach with significant environmental benefits.”

He said his group supports bringing more variability to the lake levels, and believes that can be done in a way that truly balances the benefits and gains for all interests.

“So often, we see this issue portrayed as the environment versus shoreline property owners, but that’s a false construct,” he said. “Having a healthy environment is necessary for all of us to prosper, property owners, boaters, anglers, business owners. Fifty years ago, when the water level plan was developed, we never realized what stabilization of the lake would do to the lake.”

Breeding grounds for native species such as the northern pike and black tern have been devastated by the stability, he said.

While it’s not possible to fully control the level of a body of water as big as Lake Ontario, the IJC regulates the levels as best it can by adjusting the amount of water released through giant dams on the St. Lawrence River.

Since 1958, the IJC has generally kept the lake from going any higher than 247.3 feet or any lower than 243.3 feet. The BV7 plan would have increased the maximum high to 248.5 feet and reduced the minimum low to 241.4 feet.

Cheryl Stevens said she’d prefer no changes to the 1958 plan at all — especially given how often the waves reach her house. But, if changes have to be made, she’d rather there be no change to the water level top end. That way, a new plan won’t cause additional property damage.

Barring that, said Bob Stevens, another good alternative would be for the agency to enact and find funding for mitigation measures that would protect lakeshore properties from damage.

Bevacqua said public hearings on the plan to be released Thursday will be held in mid-July.

From there, Bevacqua said, the commissioners will review comments and input from the hearings, then make recommendations to the U.S. and Canadian federal governments.