St. Lawrence River Residents Debate Flooding; Great Lakes Commission Calls Emergency Meeting

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CANTON, NY (NCPR) – The commission that manages water levels on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River is calling an emergency meeting to review its current management plan.

The International Joint Commission is a binational U.S.-Canada agency that oversees management of water levels in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River.

Kathleen Hilborne had a breakwall built after flooding in 2017 severely damaged her cottage on the St. Lawrence River in Ogdensburg. This year’s flooding has destroyed that breakwall. EMILY RUSSELL / NCPR

The IJC put a new management plan, Plan 2014, in place three years ago. Two out of those three years have brought severe flooding and millions of dollars in damage to the region.

The IJC, though, has repeatedly insisted that wet weather is to blame for the flooding, not the management plan. IJC spokesman Frank Bevacqua said the commission does still have faith in Plan 2014.

“I don’t think anyone has lost confidence in the [Plan 2014] as of yet,” Bevacqua said, “but there’s a tremendous amount of public concern and I think commissioners want to make sure no stone is left unturned.”

Plan 2014 has drawn a lot of criticism, especially this spring as water levels on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence river surpass record highs. Governor Cuomo has threatened to sue the IJC if it doesn’t take more effective measures to control water levels.

A flooded family camp

Kathleen Hilborne loves how peaceful the St. Lawrence River is, which is why she and her husband were really eager to buy a place on the water.

“We had been looking for a camp on the St. Lawrence for probably ten to fifteen years,” Hilborne explained. “We thought had a found the perfect spot.”

It was right in the city of Ogdensburg, it was close to her work, to her daughter’s school. So they pulled the trigger. They bought the place five years ago.

“And everything was going great until 2017,” she said.

That’s when water levels on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River surged. The Hilborne’s camp was completely flooded.

Her family received a $15,000 grant from New York state to build a 140 ft. seawall to protect the place. Hilborne said the contractor had just finished building the seawall this fall. September or October.

This spring has been one of the wettest on record, flooding downstream around Montreal and upstream, Lake Erie and the other great lakes are at our near record highs.

Hilborne has to wear rubber boots to walk through her flooded lawn. “Look at this,” she said, pointing to the eroded shoreline, “this is like a sandy beach. This was all grass.”

Their boathouse under more than a foot of water. The camp itself is surrounded by a wall of white sandbags, but water has still managed its way inside the building.

Considering the damage her family’s camp has suffered in two out of the last three years, Kathleen is pretty calm about the flooding, but she, like a lot of shoreline owners, are blaming the IJC.

Hilborne said a lot of people in Ogdensburg feel the same way. “They all seem to think that it’s that Plan 2014. I don’t know of anybody that doesn’t think that.”

A city calls for the repeal of Plan 2014

“A lot of these people have lived here for generations,” said David Price, “and haven’t seen flooding like this.”

Price is on Ogdensburg’s City Council. “The plan changed two years ago and now we’ve had two out of the three years of catastrophic flooding.”

Price put forward a resolution this week calling on the IJC to repeal Plan 2014. Everyone on Ogdensburg’s City Council signed off on the resolution.

“I’m hoping it picks up momentum and other municipalities pass their own resolutions and it puts pressure on both the state government as well as the International Joint Commission to make the necessary changes.”

How and why the IJC settled on Plan 2014

Before Plan 2014 there was Plan 1958DD. It was in place for more than 50 years, but a number of scientific studies over the last few decades found that that plan degraded coastal wetlands.

The IJC held several rounds of public meetings and eventually agreed on Plan 2014, saying it would balance the various needs along the shoreline while benefiting wildlife and restoring wetlands.

But on Wednesday the new American chair of the IJC, Jane Corwin, called for an emergency meeting, saying maybe it was time to make changes to or potentially suspend Plan 2014.

The city of Ogdensburg supplied sandbags to local residents along the St. Lawrence River. CREDIT EMILY RUSSELL / NCPR

An environmentalist and river resident responds

John Peach is the executive director of Save the River, an environmental advocacy group in Clayton, NY.

“My reactions are a little bit surprised considering the fact that Ms. Corwin, just last week, said she was going to take time to study Plan 2014 and make any decisions based on scientific fact.”

For Commissioner Corwin to fully understand the plan in just a week, the plan that took years to put together? Peach doesn’t think that’s possible.

He doesn’t blame the flooding on the IJC. Instead, Peach said record water levels on four out of the five Great Lakes are to blame. Plus, he says, the new plan wouldn’t have prevented the flooding two years ago.

“Plan 2014 didn’t go into effect until Jan. 1, 2017. That flow of water that was coming down from the Great lakes would have happened under 1958DD with exactly the same results.”

Peach says he has skin in the game, but the benefits of the new plan should stay in place.

“I live out on an island. My boathouse is about as flooded as anybody’s. I walk out to my boat with boots on every morning and back every evening.”

Despite calling the emergency meeting to potential suspend the current plan, ICJ Chairwoman Jane Corwin has said she does not think Plan 2014 is the reason for this year’s flooding.

Corwin told The Buffalo News that she acknowledges the extreme weather the Great Lakes experienced in recent months. “And based on the data I see, I don’t believe Plan 2014 caused the flooding.”

“However – and it’s a very big, however – I do understand that the people on the U.S. side do not have any confidence in the plan,” said Corwin. “Certainly I think this warrants a discussion.”

The IJC is hoping to hold its emergency meeting sometime this week or next. If commissioners agree to any changes to the Plan 2014, those would then require approval by both the American and Canadian governments.