Lake Level Controls:
Should regulation of Lake Ontario outflows be adjusted after unusual weather caused devastating floods?
A year after flooding in 2017, NY State Governor Andrew Cuomo requested the International Joint Commission increase Lake Ontario outflows, questioning a recently enacted and binational plan to return to more natural variation in lake levels.
Guided by the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty, regulation of water levels in the Great Lakes has been overseen by the International Joint Commission (IJC). In January of 2017, after more than 14 years of study, planning, and consultation, the IJC replaced a 60-year-old plan regulating water levels in Lake Ontario. The new ‘Plan 2014’ sought to balance the restoration of coastal ecosystems with associated trade-offs for coastal development, municipal water use, commercial navigation, recreational boating, and hydropower. Shortly after the new plan’s implementation, unprecedented weather conditions caused record-high summer water levels and led to flooding and extensive property damage along the shores of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.
In March 2018, NY State Governor Andrew Cuomo wrote a public letter to Lana Pollack, Chair of the US Section of the IJC. The Governor asked the Commission to maximize outflows to Lake Ontario in consideration of the burden on shoreline communities impacted by the 2017 flooding. He suggested that the IJC favored the interests of commercial navigation over public interest. Pollock considered the question of whether regulation should be based on average or extreme events. Was the Governor correct in suggesting that, given recent flooding, the concerns of coastal communities should be given higher priority?