By Gordon Walker and Lana Pollack, IJC co-chairs
After 16 years of scientific study, public engagement and consultation with governments, the IJC is moving forward with Plan 2014.
Plan 2014 is a modern plan for managing water levels and flows on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.
Since 1960, the flow of water from Lake Ontario has been regulated at the Moses-Saunders Dam, located at Cornwall, Ontario and Massena, New York, following requirements in the IJC’s order of approval. While natural factors such as precipitation, runoff and evaporation predominate, regulation can substantially affect the levels and flows of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.
The need for an update became clear in the 1990s when property owners, recreational boaters and others voiced increasing dissatisfaction with the current regulation plan that was developed in the 1950s. The IJC initiated a study in 2000, which the governments of Canada and the United States funded at about US$20 million. The study directly involved more than 200 technical experts and stakeholders to evaluate hundreds of alternatives. Following the study, the IJC continued to seek a solution that addressed public concerns and balanced the diverse interests. Few water-level management decisions have ever received this degree of scrutiny and fine-tuning.
Plan 2014 will continue to protect the people who live and work on these waters by reducing the severity and duration of extreme high and low water levels. Under Plan 2014, the most extreme high water level on Lake Ontario is expected to be about 6 centimeters, or 2.4 inches higher than under the current plan.
While floods will occur under any regulation plan, regulation has greatly reduced the severity of flooding throughout the system. On Lake Ontario, regulation has eliminated 98 percent of the economic costs associated with flooding. Plan 2014 will continue to protect homes from flooding.
By far the largest economic cost to shoreline property owners is maintaining shore protection structures, such as rock revetments and sea walls. On Lake Ontario, the current plan reduces these costs by about $20 million per year. Plan 2014 will continue to reduce these costs by about $18 million per year. The economic costs associated with shoreline erosion will change very little under Plan 2014.
On Lake Ontario and the upper St. Lawrence River, Plan 2014 will allow for more natural variations in levels to foster the conditions needed to restore 26,000 hectares, or 64,000 acres, of coastal wetlands. Thriving wetland habitats support highly valued recreational opportunities, filter polluted run-off and provide nurseries for fisheries and wildlife.
The range of water-level fluctuations, environmental conditions and coastal impacts on the lower St. Lawrence River, below the Moses-Saunders Dam, will remain essentially unchanged.
In most years, recreational boaters on Lake Ontario and the upper river will find that Plan 2014 provides greater water depths in the fall, extending the boating season and making it easier to pull boats out at the end of the season. Plan 2014 also increases hydropower production and is more reliable in maintaining system-wide levels for navigation.
Plan 2014 further prepares residents on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River for the future in a number of important ways. The plan performs better by reducing impacts under changing climate conditions compared to the current plan. In addition, conditions related to fluctuating water levels, such as costs to maintain shore protection structures and the health of coastal wetlands will be monitored on an ongoing basis.
The process to update the regulation of water levels and flows began with the realization that the current plan no longer meets the needs of the people and environment of Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River. Now that the governments of Canada and the United States have concurred with the IJC’s proposal, we look forward to better serving our two countries under Plan 2014, which will take effect in January. The IJC will also monitor and assess conditions on an ongoing basis to track whether Plan 2014 performs as expected.
Gordon Walker is the chair of the IJC’s Canadian Section.
Lana Pollack is chair of the US Section.