Did Plan 2014 cause Lake Ontario's floods?

May 18, 2017

Plan 2014 is unpopular with some residents of the southern shore of Lake Ontario, because it lets the water levels get higher, more frequently, and potentially for longer periods of time, which could cause damage to lakefront property owners.

So it makes sense that flooded homeowners like Tom Piekunka in Sodus Point are blaming the change in regulation for the change in their environment.

"This is what they want. They want the higher water. We're just collateral damage."

The plan went into effect in January, and since then, Lake Ontario has hit a record high. But did Plan 2014 cause the current flooding?

No, according to Frank Sciremammano.

Sciremammano isn't an apologist for the new plan that regulates lake levels. He acknowledges that it could contribute to problems in the future. But he attributes this spring's flooding to record rainfall -- and some moves made this winter to manage ice.

He's a member of the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board, which oversees lake level regulation and the management of outflows through a dam on the Upper St. Lawrence River.

However, the board doesn't have total autonomy; details for how high or low the lake is allowed to get before interference from the board are outlined in a lake level management plan.

More from Veronica Volk’s interview with Frank Sciremammano:

How has the job of a board member changed since the implementation of Plan 2014?

The board is no longer allowed to make adjustments to the flow in order to affect Lake Ontario water levels unless we are above or below trigger levels, which are at the ends of extreme levels. As of around April 24, we exceeded the upper trigger level and we've remained above that.

What are the trigger levels under the new plan?

Basically about 248 feet right into June, and those are levels that people are not used to. Once we went above 247.3 we started seeing flooding and damage. So to maintain the lake at 248 I think is going to cause more damage than what would happen if the board was allowed to release more water.

But we're speculating. Mother Nature may throw another curve.

How did this winter factor into some of the high levels we're experiencing this year?

Ice operations consist of reducing the outflow when ice forms so that we get a nice stable level, and then as that ice thickens and solidifies we increase the flow again and that's done on a normal basis.

On an average winter when it gets cold and stays cold, the ice forms, we cut the flow back and then we increase it again and run it through the winter until it melts out.

This year, five times, because it was warm and wet, the ice started forming, and then melted. Five times, by the way, was unprecedented. So each time, the flow had to be adjusted up and down.

The key in the winter is to not break up the ice. If it starts breaking up into chunks it flows downstream and jams. Then you lose all control and you damage equipment. We ended up, at the end of March, almost identical to the levels we saw in 2016. It was above average by about six inches, but it was on par but what we'd seen the year before.

Would anything be done differently this winter under the old plan?

Probably not, because the operations during the winter with the ice are designed within Plan 2014 to closely mimic what the board would have done. So, what made this spring so different from other years? The supplies of water have been unprecedented. We set a record in April, for the month we did the second highest amount of water entering Lake Ontario on record for 100 years.

We probably could have handled that, but in addition, downstream in the Ottawa River basin, which flows into the St. Lawrence, they set records. They had flows that were almost 100 percent higher than average. The Ottawa River was raising the water level at Montreal. So you look at the flows and you can see big drops in the outflows in order to maintain levels downstream at or just below flood level. That's built into the plan. We can't release a lot of the water because of the downstream conditions.

Do you feel like, as a member of the board, you were prohibited by Plan 2014 from taking precautionary measures?

Well, we are prohibited, but I'm not sure we would have anticipated this kind of precipitation in April. Now, we may have had a small window to do something, but we would have been plus or minus an inch or two, nothing significant.

The real story is going to occur later this month and into June and July, when we drop below the trigger level, and we still have room to discharge water downstream and the board won't be allowed to. Our hands will be tied. That's where Plan 2014 will have a big effect because the high water will stay here longer, because the board will not be allowed to increase the flows beyond the plan. But again, that's to be seen, going forward. If we get very dry conditions it may not be a big problem and the lake will drop naturally.

Would anything have been different under the old plan?

Not to this point. I really believe that. And, you know, I'm an opponent of 2014. I think it's a real disaster in the making, but we really can't point the finger at 2014 yet. I think the end of May, June, July, it may be a different story.