The debate over whether to allow greater fluctuations in the water level of Lake Ontario is, in the end, a debate about competing values, all of them important. That suggests that everyone with an interest, including property owners along the lake, take a more studious look at the costs and benefits of the plan.
The International Joint Commission, which is in charge of regulating lake levels by controlling water flow at the Moses-Saunders dam on the St. Lawrence River, proposed a plan last year that was fiercely opposed by property owners, who feared both erosion from high water and problems from low water.
In response, the IJC modified the plan, now called Plan 2014, designed to take account of the concerns of property owners while still achieving the goals of restoring environmental balance to the lake. That’s a significant issue, and the reason to pursue this, at all.
When the dam was built in the 1950s, the only concerns recognized were those of shipping and hydroelectric power generation. That would never happen today. Given what we have learned over the decades since, environmental issues would be given at least equal consideration.
Those environmental issues need to be given that consideration now. As with the 2007 relicensing of the Niagara Power Project in Lewiston, there comes a time to re-evaluate. Conditions change. Values shift. It is important to remain current and relevant, not stuck in a 50-year-old mold that may no longer suffice.
Because the dam basically stabilized water levels, overriding the lake’s natural ebb and flow, its environment has changed in destructive ways. Vital coastal wetlands have been degraded, hindering their ability to filter water, provide habitat for fish and protect communities from floods. Those wetlands have become choked with cattails, for example, diminishing the population of northern pike, the top predator of coastal marshes.
By allowing the lake to rise and fall in a more natural way, sand dunes will be naturally rebuilt. Recreational opportunities, including hunting, angling and wildlife-viewing, will increase.
But there are concerns that need to be addressed. Some shoreline protection expenses will increase for property owners, especially along the lake’s New York shore. Harbors may be too shallow to use during periods of lower water. Down the St. Lawrence River in Montreal, there is worry about flooding if too much water is released from the dam at certain times.
Those issues need to be dealt with. Property owners may merit some relief from the additional costs of protecting their property. The New York Power Authority, which sells the electricity produced at the dam, may be a legitimate source of compensatory revenue.
An agreement needs to be reached to protect harbors, such as those in Wilson and Olcott, likely through increased dredging.
These are solvable issues and the IJC has already modified its plan to respond to the concerns of property owners while still retaining the support of environmental groups such as the Nature Conservancy and Audubon New York. Now property owners, and the local and state politicians who have leaped to their support, need to take a more sober look at what is being proposed.
This is a solid plan. It poses questions that need to be answered, but those answers are available. It is possible for all players – including the lake, itself – to come out of this in a way that meets everyone’s needs. That’s the goal.