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Owens writes IJC on water levels, mulls position


WASHINGTON — Rep. William L. Owens hasn’t sided firmly with a proposal to return water flows on the St. Lawrence River to more natural variations — and that has environmentalists worried he may stay undecided as the plan slowly approaches approvals in the United States and Canada.

Mr. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, wrote to the U.S.-Canadian International Joint Commission on Feb. 16, urging closer attention to public concerns and to potential shoreline damage along Lake Ontario if water levels are allowed to fluctuate more from season to season, but not coming down either way on the latest proposal out of the commission.

The congressman, whose district covers both river and lake shoreline, wrote that he shares the goal of environmental benefits but added, “However, you are probably aware that there is also significant concern over the potential for significant damage to coastal properties on Lake Ontario.”

That damage could exceed $3 million annually, not including damage to municipal property, Mr. Owens wrote.

The congressman’s emphasis on Lake Ontario concerns raised eyebrows at Save the River, the Clayton environmental group that has been counting on Mr. Owens and other lawmakers to stand behind efforts to restore greater variation in water levels. The group’s representatives met with Mr. Owens Thursday afternoon.

Save the River and environmental scientists say greater variation will support wetlands along the shorelines, which provide animal habitat and also protect against flooding.

In an interview Thursday, Mr. Owens said he may take a position in favor of a particular plan after a public comment period, which he said will give people a chance to point out any flaws.

Of the plan floated in February by an IJC task force, Mr. Owens said, “My initial reaction to it is, it seems reasonable.”

Mr. Owens urged the IJC to make the full plan public “as soon as possible” and to provide an analysis that includes all affected parties.

He also said he will focus on making sure funds are available to mitigate effects of higher water on Lake Ontario, a frequent demand of property owners along the south lakeshore.

The executive director of Save the River, Jennifer J. Caddick, said the group continues to make a case with lawmakers for a more environmentally focused policy on water flow regulations, and met with representatives from Rep. Louise M. Slaughter’s office as well. Mrs. Slaughter, D-Fairport, represents much of Lake Ontario’s south shore.

This is the first major update of water flow regulations since the 1950s and has been in the works for several years, taking into account changes in the region since then — especially more recreational boating and recognition of environmental effects of water level changes.

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