As Lake Ontario lingers at record highs, public outcry against the group that manages lake levels continues to rise.
Barbara Hasenauer lives on Edgemere Drive in Greece, NY. While picking up sandbags to protect her property from the incessant flooding, she said it’s something she shouldn’t have to do.
"I’m very angry about it," she said. "They can do something, but they don’t. And I don’t mean the people in Greece -- they’ve been great -- but it’s the IJC."
The IJC, or International Joint Commission, is the binational group that oversees Great Lakes Management. Hasenauer isn’t the only resident who blames them for the flooding.
Ask many homeowners along the southern shore of Lake Ontario and they will point to the new lake level management plan -- called Plan 2014 -- as the cause behind these high levels. But it’s not just residents who blame the plan.
"I think it’s detrimental," said Greece Town Supervisor Bill Reilich. "All you gotta do is look at the shoreline and I can say that since this new plan’s put in -- two out of three years, we got flooding."
In the last week, even more politicians have joined the fight against the IJC, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who threatened legal action against the IJC, and U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, who accused them of mismanagement. Chris Collins (R-Clarence) was an early critic.
The IJC defends itself
And no matter how hard the IJC defends itself and its management plan, it only sparks more outrage.
"I mean, it’s disappointing that it came to this," said Rob Caldwell, secretary for the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board, which is in charge of implementing the plan.
Caldwell said he was recently in contact with law enforcement over targeted personal threats to staff members, but declined to comment further. He said the board isn’t even responsible for Plan 2014, just its implementation.
The IJC and Plan 2014 supporters say this year’s flooding was caused by excessive rain and inflows from the upper Great Lakes -- a likely symptom of climate change in the region. The IJC put Plan 2014 in place only three years ago. Two out of those three years have brought severe flooding and millions of dollars in damage to the region.
There was word early Wednesday that the commission would call an emergency meeting to review its management plan. However, in a statement to WBFO, IJC Public Information Officer Frank Bevacqua said no meeting had been scheduled.
"IJC Commissioners are concerned about the flooding that is occurring this year and have focused their attention on gaining an understanding of the situation through visits to affected areas and expert briefings. To address the immediate situation, the IJC’s International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board has increased the Lake Ontario outflow above the flow specified by Plan 2014. The flow is at the historic maximum rate. This is being done under the Board’s existing authority to deviate from Plan 2014 flows. The Board is setting Lake Ontario outflows as high as conditions on the St. Lawrence River will allow. IJC Commissioners will meet in the near future to consider additional potential flood relief measures, as well as the performance of Plan 2014. Modification or suspension of Plan 2014 would be part of a longer-term process requiring the IJC Commissioners to reach consensus and the Governments of Canada and the United States to provide their concurrence."
“I don’t think anyone has lost confidence in the [Plan 2014] as of yet," Bevacqua further told North Country Public Radio, "but there’s a tremendous amount of public concern and I think commissioners want to make sure no stone is left unturned.”
A flooded family camp
Kathleen Hilborne loves how peaceful the St. Lawrence River is, which is why she and her husband were really eager to buy a place on the water.
“We had been looking for a camp on the St. Lawrence for probably ten to fifteen years," Hilborne explained. "We thought had a found the perfect spot.”
It was right in the city of Ogdensburg, it was close to her work, to her daughter’s school. So they pulled the trigger. They bought the place five years ago.
“And everything was going great until 2017,” she said.
That’s when water levels on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River surged. The Hilborne’s camp was completely flooded.
Her family received a $15,000 grant from New York state to build a 140 ft. seawall to protect the place. Hilborne said the contractor had just finished building the seawall this fall. September or October.
"We never even got to use it," explained Hilborne. "It’s gone. Everything is gone. It’s worse than it was in 2017.”
Hilborne has to wear rubber boots to walk through her flooded lawn.
“Look at this," she said, pointing to the eroded shoreline. "This is like a sandy beach. This was all grass.”
Their boathouse under more than a foot of water. The camp itself is surrounded by a wall of white sandbags, but water has still managed its way inside the building.
Considering the damage her family’s camp has suffered in two out of the last three years, Hilborne is pretty calm about the flooding, but she, like a lot of shoreline owners, are blaming the IJC. She said a lot of people in Ogdensburg feel the same way.
"They all seem to think that it’s that Plan 2014. I don’t know of anybody that doesn’t think that.”
How and why the IJC settled on Plan 2014
Before Plan 2014 there was Plan 1958DD. It was in place for more than 50 years, but a number of scientific studies over the last few decades found that that plan degraded coastal wetlands. The IJC held several rounds of public meetings and eventually agreed on Plan 2014, saying it would balance the various needs along the shoreline while benefiting wildlife and restoring wetlands.
John Peach is the executive director of Save the River, an environmental advocacy group in Clayton, NY. He doesn’t blame the flooding on the IJC. Instead, Peach said record water levels on four out of the five Great Lakes are to blame. Plus, he said, the new plan wouldn’t have prevented the flooding two years ago.
“Plan 2014 didn’t go into effect until Jan. 1, 2017. That flow of water that was coming down from the Great Lakes would have happened under 1958DD with exactly the same results,” he said.
Peach said he has skin in the game, but the benefits of the new plan should stay in place.
“I live out on an island. My boathouse is about as flooded as anybody’s. I walk out to my boat with boots on every morning and back every evening,” said Peach.