5:58am

Sat May 4, 2013
Environment

Rising concern about changes to Lake Ontario water levels

The water levels in Lake Ontario have a significant impact on the economic and environmental viability of harbors in upstate New York and Canada. As a result, a proposed plan to change the management of those water levels has raised some concerns in waterfront communities.

The International Joint Commission (IJC) regulates the water levels on the lake, and for years they’ve argued that the priorities have swung in one direction.

“The current regulation plan tries to manage those available water supplies for interests on the lake and on the St. Lawrence river in a way that maximizes the benefits for human interests,” says IJC spokesperson Frank Bevacqua.

He says current management plans ensure minimal damage to shoreline property, and maximum economic benefit for harbor communities; at the cost of the environment.

The new plan, called BV7, would raise and lower the water levels by a few more inches at indicators throughout the year and is aimed at improving environmental and economic stability, Bevacqua says.

“This has been an ongoing process for more than 12 years now to improve the regulations of water levels and flows in order to provide for the economic and ecological future of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.”

Bevacqua says at most, the extreme highs of the river would be raised by two inches, and the lows would be eight inches below the lowest levels of the current management plan.

Water levels damaging ecosystems

Jim Howe, executive director of the Nature Conservancy in Western New York, says change is needed.

According to Howe, the current water levels have caused a lack of ecosystem diversity, leading to things like a drop in the pike population and the disappearance of many bird species.

He says bird watching can be a lucrative industry, but many birders have reported that they no longer see a lot of the species that used to be in the area. In addition, duck hunters have stopped coming to the lake during duck season, Howe says.

“If we’re not able to move the lake to a more sustainable flow plan then we’re going to see this continued degradation of the resource here. And it’s not just about nature, it’s about our economics, the foundation of our economy here is a healthy environment.”

Outdoor recreation accounts for more than $11 billion in retail sales and services across New York each year in addition to millions in tax revenue and more than 100,000 jobs.

Locals concerned about impact of BV7

The IJC concedes that higher water levels will increase erosion for shoreline properties, a concern that residents have voiced because of the cost of upkeep. The IJC says the level of protection afforded to shoreline properties with the current plan is extensive, and the proposed plan would decrease that protection by about 10 percent. But Howe says that’s just part of life when you live along the Great Lakes.

It’s the lower water levels that have upstate harbor communities worried.

“Right now these harbors, these fishing harbors and recreational harbors, you can’t get the bigger boats in and out at all,” says David Godfrey, member of the Niagara County legislature.

He says water levels are already much lower than usual, due to a lack of rainfall and lowering the levels even further would cost communities around Lake Ontario millions of dollars in revenue.

“Just across three harbors, small harbors, we’re looking at an excess of well over $50 million dollar revenue stream that could be jeopardized if our harbors are not accessible, and we have boats that are leaving our harbors.”

Former Commodore of the Wilson Yacht Club, Lisa Stephens says word travels fast in the boating community, and if one boat is unable to access a harbor others won’t even bother to try.

She says the consequences could be huge.

“All of those small businesses that are dependent on the revenue coming in through the harbor, they’re in a pretty precarious position.”

Lack of dredging in upstate New York

Stephens says there’s been a lack of maintenance in upstate harbors on Lake Ontario. The absence of dredging in some communities for up to 15 years means silt has been allowed to build up. If you couple that with the IJC plan to lower water levels further, she says, many sailors wouldn’t be able to take part in boating season.

That would be a hard blow she says, and not just from an economic standpoint.

“People who are sailors in particular look forward to sailing the entire year. Even in the off season they are typically preparing their boats, or thinking about potential upgrades and looking forward to the season.”

The Nature Conservancy’s Jim Howe says his organization understands the need for dredging in the area and wants to work with communities around Lake Ontario to let congress know it’s an issue. The Army Corp of Engineers is responsible for dredging the channels, but no funds have been allocated for maintenance in many upstate harbors for more than a decade.

The IJC’s Frank Bevacqua says they’ve heard the concerns of harbor communities and want to implement a plan that’ll strike a fair compromise.

IJC officials say changes to water management plans won’t go ahead without further public hearings, and require the approval of both the US and Canadian governments.

Reporting by The Innovation Trail is supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.