Federal legislation introduced to allow lawsuits over Lake Ontario flooding

Mar 3, 2020

The international agency that regulates water levels on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River could find itself the target of lawsuits if some upstate New York congressional representatives have their way.

Legislation has been introduced in the House by Reps. John Katko (R-Camillus), Anthony Brindisi (D-Utica) and Joe Morelle (D-Rochester) that would allow shoreline communities impacted by high water levels to take legal action against the International Joint Commission.

Katko, whose district represents lakeshore residents in Wayne, Cayuga and Oswego Counties, said Monday the IJC hasn’t listened to the plight of communities being destroyed by flood damage that’s taken place since Plan 2014 was put in place four years ago.

"You get double speak. You get half justifications for things, and we’re not getting action from them. So today, the gloves come off," Katko said.

That tougher stance comes in the form of the IJC Accountability Act. Katko said legal action may be the only way to get the IJC's attention.

Rep. John Katko (center) is one of three upstate members of Congress to introduce the legislation allowing homeowners to sue.
Credit Ellen Abbott / WRVO News

"This legislation is going to remove immunity from judicial proceedings the International Joint Commission is currently provided under federal law, and will allow shoreline communities to pursue lawsuits against the International Joint Commission for damages caused by flooding and persistent high water levels," Katko said.

Cathleen Goodnough is one of the owners of the Greene Point Marina and Mobile Home Park in Sandy Pond in Oswego County. She estimates flood damage to her business adds up to almost $5 million. So she’s ready to go to court, and she said she’s not the only one.

"It affects the businesses inside, not on the water," Goodnough said. "The bars, the restaurants, anybody that’s relying on local tourism to keep them going in the summer months. It affects everybody."

Jason Livesey of Rudy’s Lakeside Drive-in in Oswego said these lawsuits would be about more than money. The goal is forcing the IJC to get rid of Plan 2014, which many believe led to record high water levels and massive flooding along the south shore of Lake Ontario in 2017 and again last year. It forced property owners and state and local governments to pour millions of dollars into repairs.

"This plan is going to directly impact the residents of New York state going forward for many, many years. So I think we would be doing a disservice if we didn’t sue."

New York state is currently suing the IJC. This legislation would allow that lawsuit to proceed.

In a statement, IJC spokesman Frank Bevacqua said the IJC is not responsible for high water on Lake Ontario, nature is. 

"The announcement appears to be based on the false belief that IJC can prevent flooding on Lake Ontario. Our International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board has taken every action to reduce the risk of flooding by directing record-high winter outflows from Lake Ontario," said Bevacqua. "However, nature determines whether or not it will flood, not the IJC, particularly when inflows are extremely high both above and below the Moses-Saunders Dam."

Bevacqua said if this legislation passes, it would make the IJC's job of regulating water levels more difficult.

"The IJC was granted immunity from lawsuit because the courts and domestic political institutions are not in a position to oversee international waterways. If Lake Ontario communities file a lawsuit, downstream communities and other interests could as well. It would not be possible to manage Lake Ontario outflows in the face of conflicting lawsuits in different jurisdictions," Bevacqua said.