At a special state hearing in Oswego County Tuesday, government officials admitted that there is effectively no way to prevent Lake Ontario from once again reaching the record high levels seen this year. In fact, they said it is bound to happen again. However, they think there may be ways to reduce the amount of damage the flooding caused along the shoreline.
The policy that the International Joint Commission uses to regulate Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River's water levels, called Plan 2014, frequently came under the spotlight Tuesday.
Stephen Durrett with the International IJC Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence Board, which executes the policy, tried to defend it, saying record rainfall was to blame for this year's flooding. However, a crowd made up mostly of property owners booed and laughed at the suggestion.
"Whatever plan we would have had in place we would have had the same conditions," Durrett said. "I believe we would have had the same conditions this year no matter what."
The legislators at the hearing were also skeptical. They repeatedly asked why the IJC board overseeing water levels did not have more discretion to lower the lake before May since the water was higher than normal months earlier.
Frank Sciremammano, another member of the IJC, blamed that on Plan 2014. He said the policy prevents the organization from increasing outflows before certain levels are reached.
"We could have a perfect forecast a month in advance that we are going to exceed the trigger," Sciremammano said. "We're not allowed to do anything."
Oswego County State Sen. Patty Ritchie (R-Heuvelton) said the IJC board needs the authority to take preventive flooding measures sooner. Oswego County Assemblymember Will Barlcay (R-Pulaski) said more local representatives on the IJC board might help the situation.
On the same day, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for a special session of the State Legislature, partly to ask lawmakers to approve more money for people impacted by spring flooding.
Cuomo notes that back in July, the state passed a $45 million financial assistance package for homeowners, businesses and local governments. The grants are being administered, but he said the estimates coming in from the applications indicate that the funding required will exceed the amount already appropriated by the legislature.
Cuomo said he had initially indicated a proposed increase in funding for the affected lakeshore properties in next year’s budget, but since then, he has heard from many concerned applicants they do not want to wait that long.
Cuomo is proposing the legislature appropriate an additional $35 million for the lakeshore aid applications and he said there are other pending issues that could be addressed at a special session, including the financial hardship the state will face from potential federal cutbacks.