International Joint Commission Seeks Relief for Shoreline Communities in Setting Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Flows

Contact Frank Bevacqua
Fabien Lengellé Washington, D.C.
Ottawa, Ontario (202) 736-9024
(613) 995-0088


International Joint Commission Seeks Relief for Shoreline Communities in Setting Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Flows

The International Joint Commission today invoked criterion (k) of its Orders of Approval for Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River regulation based on high water supplies to Lake Ontario and a recommendation by its International St. Lawrence River Board of Control.

Under high water supply conditions, criterion (k) gives precedence to shoreline property owners on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River from the Thousand Islands to past Montreal when setting flows through the international hydropower project at Massena, New York and Cornwall, Ontario.

The Board of Control's recommendation was based on the determination that water "supplies of the past, as adjusted" have been exceeded. Criterion (k) is an extraordinary measure that is invoked when Lake Ontario water supplies exceed those experienced prior to 1954. Water supplies to Lake Ontario in January 1998 were the highest January supplies on record.

Since fall, the Board of Control's strategy has been to release more water from Lake Ontario than would have been called for under the current regulation plan, known as Plan 1958-D, whenever it could do so without adversely affecting other interests. Though the water level of Lake Ontario is high, it would presently be 0.56 metres (1.8 feet) higher had the project not been built.

The International St. Lawrence River Board of Control and the International Joint Commission acted on criterion (k) at this point in time to set clear priorities and provide the authority that may be needed to achieve them. Invoking criterion (k) has no immediate effect on flow releases, because the Board of Control is presently setting flows that will allow a stable ice cover to form. Forming a stable ice cover helps prevent underwater ice blockages that can restrict flows. Once the ice cover is formed, the Board of Control will release flows as high as possible without causing downstream flooding, as permitted under the winter operations provision of the Commission's Orders of Approval. However, at the conclusion of winter operations, criterion (k) provides the authority to release higher flows as necessary to achieve the specified priorities.

The level of Lake Ontario is presently at 75.02 metres (246.13 feet) above sea level (IGLD 1985), which is approximately 0.44 metres (1.4 feet) above its long term average for this time of year. The inflow to Lake Ontario from Lake Erie will remain high for the foreseeable future because of high water levels on Lake Erie. The outlook for the rest of the year, however, depends on several factors and is highly uncertain. If the Board of Control were to strictly follow Plan 1958-D, Lake Ontario would peak at 75.84 metres ( 248.82 feet) at the end of June under a high precipitation scenario or at 75.02 metres (246.13 feet) at the end of April under a low precipitation scenario. It must be noted, however, that the Board of Control will be releasing significantly more water than the plan calls for at every available opportunity. In addition, projections of the peak lake level are likely to change over time. For example, projections made just one month ago have changed dramatically because of the unusually high precipitation that occurred during the month of January.

Water levels that will actually occur this year under criterion (k) operations will depend on several factors, including precipitation and temperature in the Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River basin, the extent to which flows in the St. Lawrence River are constrained by ice conditions, flooding conditions downstream, particularly during the spring runoff from the Ottawa River basin, and the potential for serious adverse effects to any other interest, including commercial navigation.

Under criterion (k), the Board of Control will continue to monitor conditions upstream and downstream to determine the appropriate flow through the power project. The Commission and its Board of Control will continue to carefully consider conditions on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River to determine the appropriate duration of criterion (k) operations.

The International Joint Commission was created under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 to help prevent and resolve disputes over the use of waters along the Canada-United States boundary. Its responsibilities include approving certain projects that would change water levels on the other side of the boundary. If it approves a project, the Commission's orders of approval may require that flows through the project meet certain conditions to protect interests in both countries.

The International St. Lawrence River Board of Control was established by the Commission in its 1952 Order of Approval. Its main duty is to ensure that outflows from Lake Ontario meet the requirements of the Commission's Orders. The Board also develops regulation plans and conducts special studies as requested by the Commission.