The Expedited Review of Plan 2014, the outflow management plan for Lake Ontario, has moved to a second and more expansive phase. The focus is now on the workings of the plan and possible changes.
Plan 2014 is a set of rules that regulate the rate of outflow from Lake Ontario into the St. Lawrence River through a dam on the upper St. Lawrence, with the goal of moderating extreme water levels while allowing more natural variation in those levels. The International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board can override Plan 2014’s set rules and adjust the outflow when water levels reach extremes.
The International Joint Commission (IJC) ordered the expedited review in early 2020. Phase 1, completed in November 2021, focused on supporting the work of the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board’s oversight of Plan 2014 operations.
Phase 2 will include a thorough analysis of Plan 2014, especially the plan’s response to extreme high and low water levels and climate change impacts.
In collaboration with decision makers and public interests, researchers will create a Shared Vision Model to evaluate Plan 2014 and possible changes. The Shared Vision Model will combine tools that predict the impact of various water levels on specific uses and interests on the lake and river so that outcomes can be considered collectively.
Predictive models will feed into an overall model in Phase 2. Credit: Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management Committee
Multiple predictive models that feed into the overall Shared Vision Model will incorporate a variety of water supply scenarios, including some with higher or lower water levels than those seen in the past. Some scenarios will depict trends that play out over spans of many years so that potential long-term impacts can be considered. For example, Phase 2 analyses will directly include Indigenous Nations and will have a greater emphasis on ecosystem impacts which may only be measurable after a few years.
When these features are in place, computer models will compare Plan 2014’s impact on lake levels and river flows to the impacts resulting from any proposed changes, such as alterations of the high- or low-water limits or modifications to “trigger levels” when the board is authorized to deviate from the plan. The models will simulate how these comparisons might play out under a host of different wet or dry water supply scenarios that could occur with the changing climate.
The International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board will decide how best to measure impacts and evaluate proposed changes to the plan. The board will recommend any changes to the Commission.
Lake Ontario at Cobourg, Ontario. Credit: Shutterstock
After gathering public comments on Phase 2 of the expedited review, the Commission would forward any recommended changes to Plan 2014 to the governments of Canada and the United States for their concurrence. If both nations agree, the IJC would adopt those changes.
The Lake Ontario outflow regulations in Plan 2014 took effect in January 2017 after 16 years of study, public discussion and government deliberation.
The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management (GLAM) Committee is conducting the Expedited Review of Plan 2014.
This is the first comprehensive review completed by GLAM, which was created in 2015 by the IJC to study the outflow management plans for Lake Ontario and Lake Superior. Phase 2 began in the fall of 2021 and is scheduled to be complete in the fourth quarter of 2024, pending available funding. Canada and the United States have each contributed about $1.8 million to initiate Phase 2 and the IJC is working with the two governments to secure the remaining funding.
Steve Orr is a science writer in Rochester, New York, who has been assisting the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management Committee with the Plan 2014 expedited review.