Some 13.5 million people live in communities that abut the shorelines of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. A fair number of them—boaters, anglers, commercial shippers, business owners and shoreline property owners—have a direct stake in the ups and downs of water levels.
It made sense, then, that a broad group of citizens, business people and advocates would be named to advise and assist the scientists reviewing Plan 2014.
Plan 2014, which regulates outflow from Lake Ontario, went into effect in January 2017. The schedule for an analysis of the plan’s performance was moved up after extreme high water and flooding in 2017 and 2019.
The IJC formed a Public Advisory Group (PAG) in May 2020, shortly after commencement of the first phase of the expedited review of Plan 2014.
The PAG, as the group was known, had 18 members representing businesses, local governments, shoreline residents, recreational users, First Nations, farmers and environmental advocates.
The group’s members met virtually about two dozen times with the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management (GLAM) Committee, which conducted the Phase 1 review. Sessions included discussion of how extreme high water affects PAG members and their communities.
“The process was very open and candid,” said PAG member John Peach, a lifelong resident of the Thousand Islands region and executive director of Save The River/Upper St. Lawrence Riverkeeper. “I felt, and most others felt, pretty free to speak our minds and challenge other people and to listen to them. It gave me a better understanding of the challenges faced by the many other stakeholders in the system.”
Phase 1 of the review supported the work of the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board, which can change the outflow when water levels on the lake are at extreme high or low points. These changes are known as deviations from the plan.
Phase 1 research led to creation of a decision support tool–a digital application that provides the board with data on the potential outcome of proposed deviations. It allows members to judge whether a deviation designed to ease problems for one region or interest would unduly worsen conditions for another.
The PAG played a significant role in creation of the decision support tool. Their input helped shape the type and appearance of impact data presented by the application and made the tool’s output more user-friendly and comprehensive.
The advisory group also urged the GLAM Committee to ensure that the human element is considered by the board along with the tool’s graphs, charts and statistics.
In response, the GLAM Committee is testing a StoryMap feature that will allow the board to click on a shoreline community and get a sense through pictures, maps and contextual information about the impacts of high water and the people who live in a particular area, including their ability to manage financial and other stresses of flooding.
“I think the PAG brought a huge amount of empathy to the tool,” Peach said. “I know the GLAM members heard that. I know that the board members heard it.”
The GLAM Committee intends to seek similar public input during Phase 2 of the review, now underway.
The GLAM Committee's Phase 1 report on the Expedited Review of Plan 2014 will be published in the coming weeks.
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.