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IJC public hearings on new lake-river regulation proposal begin Sunday


Public hearings on the controversial new Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River water management proposal begin today, and representatives from the International Joint Commission will be gathering area feedback Wednesday evening in Alexandria Bay.

The three-hour hearing will begin at 6 at the Bonnie Castle Resort and Marina, 31 Holland St.

Critics along the lake shore call the regulation strategy — Plan 2014, proposed by the commission in June — a “nightmare scenario” that would wreak havoc on public septic systems and coastal properties through erosion and flooding.

St. Lawrence River and upper Lake Ontario residents and environmentalists, on the other hand, generally endorse the proposed plan, which attempts to mimic natural flows of the lake rather than keeping levels steady within a relatively narrow range.

James Jerome, a Sandy Pond cottage owner and outspoken opponent of the IJC’s proposal, argued that it’s unfair that lakefront homeowners like him would be forced to spend millions of dollars a year on shoreline protection and property repairs under Plan 2014.

“They’re changing the rules of the game after 50 years, and some of these people invested their life savings in their properties,” Mr. Jerome said.

Under Plan 2014, the annual cost of shoreline protection and maintenance is estimated to increase by $2.2 million, according to IJC’s projections, because the plan allows for higher water levels.

“Here the IJC is trying to ram this through and everybody except shoreline property owners are included,” said Richard Henry, who lives on Mexico Bay. “We don’t have a voice. They should’ve taken a step back and involved all of these stakeholders.”

Because there are no plans for compensation or mitigation, critics argue the government essentially is confiscating their properties.

Mr. Jerome said lakefront property owners plan to “surrender” their house keys to the IJC at the public hearings or send them to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office in protest.

Plan 2014 supporters, on the other hand, question why taxpayers should bail out people who built their homes on flood plains and municipal governments that put their sewer infrastructure too close to the water.

D. Lee Willbanks, executive director of the Clayton-based environmental advocacy group Save the River, said critics of IJC’s proposal seem to believe nature should be kept at bay.

“They somehow believe a dynamic ecological system can be controlled — and specifically for their benefit,” he said. “They never had that guarantee.”

Save the River also argues that lakeshore property owners still would benefit greatly from the management of the water under Plan 2014, just not as much as they would under the original 1958-DD plan.

Compared to the outdated, half-century-old management plan in place, advocates of Plan 2014 view IJC’s proposal as a “step forward” — a modern water-regulation strategy that finally takes into consideration not only climate change but also environmental and recreational interests neglected under 1958-DD.

Those familiar with IJC’s past proposals will see that Plan 2014 essentially is Bv7 with deviations — namely, “trigger levels” that allow the binational water regulator to take “extraordinary actions” when lake water levels exceed or drop below certain points — that are meant to lessen the projected damage to shoreline properties.

“This is a refinement and not a new plan,” Mr. Willbanks said. “I expect anybody happy with Bv7 would be happy with Plan 2014.”

Like its precursors — Bv7 and Plan B+, which derived from a five-year, federally funded $20 million study — the commission’s new proposal promises to help restore wetlands that were destroyed over the past half-century because of human regulation of the waterway.

Shoreline property owners including Mr. Henry, however, argue that IJC’s study is not based on “real science” and that it would take several generations to reverse the damage done by 1958-DD.

Furthermore, Mr. Henry said, south and east shoreline properties on the lake have lost 100 to 200 feet of “buffer” — beaches and wetlands that would have protected their homes and infrastructure to some extent — over the past several decades because of the regulation of the lake.

With almost no buffer in place, by the time regulators take action based on Plan 2014’s so-called “trigger levels,” he said, the damage already would have been done.

But for the same reason, environmentalists argue that Plan 2014 is the only salvation for lakefront property owners in the long run, as it would lead to conditions that rebuild beaches naturally.

“If we don’t change this plan, these problems will not go away,” Mr. Willbanks said.

While 1958-DD aims to keep water levels within a 4-foot range, 247.3 feet being the upper limit and 243.3 feet the lower limit, IJC’s proposed “trigger levels” will vary greatly depending on the season.

For example, while 245.77 feet would be considered a “high trigger level” in mid-November, levels as high as 248.12 feet would be allowed in early June under Plan 2014.

Low triggers will vary from as low as 243.18 feet in late January through early February, to as high as 244.91 feet for most of June and early July.

Mr. Jerome also suggested that IJC drafted its new plan to please hydropower and shipping interests.

“It’s all about money. It always is,” he said.

According to IJC’s economic impact study, hydropower production is projected to see an average annual gain of $5.2 million under Plan 2014. However, no change is expected in commercial navigation.

Also part of IJC’s new proposal is an “adaptive management strategy” that will be funded by the U.S. and Canadian governments to allow the commission to better monitor trends in water supply and evaluate its water regulation plan more frequently.

The public comment period ends Aug. 30, and IJC intends to make a recommendation and seek concurrence from the two federal governments this fall.

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