Proposed changes to Lake Ontario management raises concern

William Mewes/via Flickr
April 29, 2013

The water levels in Lake Ontario have a significant impact on the economic and environmental viability of harbors in upstate New York and Canada. A proposed plan to change the management of those water levels has raised some concerns.

The International Joint Commission – the IJC – regulates the water levels on Lake Ontario, and for years they’ve argued that the priorities have swung in one direction.

IJC spokesperson, Frank Bevacqua says current management plans ensure minimal damage to shoreline property, and maximum economic benefit for harbor communities; at the cost of the environment.

“The current regulation plan tries to manage those available water supplies for interests on the lake and on the St. Lawrence river in a way that maximizes the benefits for human interests," he says.

According to Bevacqua, a new plan will raise and lower the water levels by a few more inches at indicators throughout the year and is aimed at improving environmental and economic stability.

“This has been an ongoing process for more than 12 years now to improve the regulations of water levels and flows in order to provide for the economic and ecological future of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River," he says.

Jim Howe, executive director of the Nature Conservancy in Western New York, says change is needed.

According to Howe, the current water levels have caused a lack of ecosystem diversity, leading to things like a drop in the pike population the disappearance of many bird species.

“If we’re not able to move the lake to a more sustainable flow plan then we’re going to see this continued degradation of the resource here. And it’s not just about nature, it’s about our economics, the foundation of our economy here is a healthy environment," he says.

Outdoor recreation accounts for more than $11 billion in retail sales and services across New York each year in addition to millions in tax revenue and more than 100,000 jobs.

The IJC concedes that higher water levels will increase erosion for shoreline properties, but Howe says that’s just part of life when you live along the Great Lakes.

It’s the lower water levels that have upstate harbor communities worried.

“Right now these harbors, these fishing harbors and recreational harbors, you can’t get the bigger boats in and out at all," says Howe

David Godfrey, member of the Niagara County legislature says water levels are already much lower than usual, due to a lack of rainfall.

And he says, lowering the levels even further would cost communities around Lake Ontario millions of dollars in revenue.

“Just across three harbors, small harbors, we’re looking at an excess of well over $50 million dollar revenue stream that could be jeopardized if our harbors are not accessible, and we have boats that are leaving our harbors," he says.

Former Commodore of the Wilson Yacht Club, Lisa Stephens says word travels fast in the boating community, and if one boat is unable to access a harbor others won’t even bother to try.

Stephens says the consequences could be huge.

“All of those small businesses that are dependent on the revenue coming in through the harbor, they’re in a pretty precarious position," she says.

Stephens says there’s been a lack of maintenance in upstate harbors on Lake Ontario.

The absence of dredging in some communities for up to 15 years means silt has been allowed to build up.

She says if you couple that with the IJC plan to lower water levels, many sailors wouldn’t be able to take part in boating season.

That would be a hard blow she says, and not just from an economic standpoint.

“People who are sailors in particular look forward to sailing the entire year. Even in the off season they are typically preparing their boats, or thinking about potential upgrades and looking forward to the season," says Stephens.

The IJC’s Frank Bevacqua says they’ve heard the concerns of harbor communities and want to implement a plan that’ll strike a fair compromise.

IJC officials say changes to water management plans won’t go ahead without further public hearings, and require the approval of both the US and Canadian governments.