If there is one thing that the residents and business owners of Western New York should agree on, it is that they have a compelling interest in the health of the Great Lakes. In particular, Lakes Erie and Ontario are engines benefiting the economy, recreation and overall quality of life in this area while also providing a reliable source of water.
That’s why the work of the International Joint Commission is so important and why the agency wants to allow the level of Lake Ontario to fluctuate more than it does now, rising a few inches higher in spring and fall.
The plan deserves broad support – as do some worried residents of Niagara and Orleans counties. Those shoreline property owners are almost alone in opposing this plan, and while their concerns are legitimate and deserve attention, they also shouldn’t be allowed to block a well-considered plan that appears to do a good job of balancing a variety of important interests.
For 13 years, the commission – composed of American and Canadian members – has studied the environmental issues that artificial water levels have created on Lake Ontario since the construction of Moses-Saunders Power Dam on the St. Lawrence River in the 1950s. That project created an inexpensive supply of power and helped make the St. Lawrence Seaway navigable.
But the dam also allowed engineers to control the water level of Lake Ontario, and when those levels were agreed upon, no consideration was given to the effects on the environment, whose influences were poorly, if at all, understood.
But there has been a price. Lower lake levels have harmed wetlands along the shore, for example. Wetlands are natural pollution filters and they also provide habitat to amphibians, birds, mammals and fish. The degrading of those wetlands has damaged the health of the lake and of the creatures that make their homes there.
A better balance is necessary. The environment deserves a place at the table when considering the manipulation of lake levels, as do boating, fishing, shipping, power generation, recreation and, yes, the interests of homeowners along the lake shore.
In fact, according to members of the IJC, of all those interested parties, only homeowners along the southwestern shore of the lake are vocally opposed to what is known as Plan 2014.
Their concern is about the potential for flooding and property erosion, both of which can already occur as lake levels are managed today.
The criticism has been fierce. One group, the Niagara-Orleans Regional Alliance, went so far as to call the IJC’s work “government at its worst.” On its face, that’s not the case, given the amount of time the IJC has spent on this issue, including many public hearings. The fact is that homeowners on this part of the lake, virtually alone among those interested in this issue, believe they are better off with the status quo than with the proposed change that factors in environmental needs.
And, frankly, who can blame them? Their properties were purchased, improved and maintained based on a set of facts that may now be changing. This is a federal issue, ultimately to be agreed upon or rejected by the national governments of the United States and Canada. Those governments – mainly Washington – need to offer some level of protection to those property owners to help them prepare for and cope with the changes envisioned in Plan 2014.
These changes are worth making, to protect the lake that helps to define and improve life in this area. The benefits are such that the plan should be adopted, providing assistance to property owners along the southwestern shoreline and, if necessary, over their objections.