LOCKPORT – Elected officials and residents from the counties along the south shore of Lake Ontario countered scientific research with personal appeals Sunday night at a public hearing on a proposed change in the way the water level of Lake Ontario is managed.
Under Plan 2014, which updates 50-year-old criteria for managing water levels in Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, owners of lakefront property in Niagara County and beyond could experience annual high water about 4 inches higher, and annual lows about 7 inches lower than at present.
Six commissioners from the International Joint Commission, the binational group that has overseen the flow of water through the Moses-Saunders hydropower dam downstream from Lake Ontario since 1960, were present Sunday to defend their plan to improve the lakeshore ecosystems and to field comments from local concerned citizens.
They and other proponents of the plan who spoke Sunday argued that by creating more variable water levels that more closely resemble natural conditions, the tens of thousands of acres of wetlands along the shores of Lake Ontario would be revitalized at relatively little cost to the region’s property owners and municipal and recreational assets.
Other local stakeholders – including lakeshore residents, fishermen and boaters – were not convinced.
Speaking on behalf of his lakeshore constituents, State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, said the point of view of shoreline property owners mattered most because they would suffer directly from the plan’s adverse effects.
“This plan will hurt those people who live on the south shore particularly of Lake Ontario,” said Maziarz.
Niagara County Legislator David E. Godfrey, R-Wilson, listed some of the outcomes residents feared most: the steady devaluation of lakefront homes as higher water levels eroded the coast at quicker and quicker rates; and a curtailed boating season as lower water levels made harbors inaccessible sooner.
“All of this for muskrats and cattails?” he asked, referring to two of the species that stand to benefit from Plan 2014’s revamped water levels.
Muskrats proved to be a sticking point throughout the evening. Of the dozens who spoke, several took swipes at what they perceived as the International Joint Commission’s “backward” prioritization of ecosystems for American families.
“It’s very difficult for me to get warm and fuzzy about wetlands and muskrats when our home is falling into the lake,” said 30-year south shore resident Tom Herberger.
In his statement to the commission, Herberger described how he and his wife purchased the lakefront home in the Town of Porter last year only to lose 2 feet of their property to lake-induced erosion within a year.
Representatives from local environmentalist groups were on hand to emphasize the importance of revitalizing lakefront ecosystems.
“We must take action to restore our nation’s most important natural resource, our Great Lakes,” said Brian P. Smith, program and communications director for the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, a Buffalo-based advocacy group.
The IJC is accepting public input through its website, www.ijc.org, until Aug. 30, after which it will make its recommendation regarding Plan 2014 to the U.S. and Canadian governments.