Schumer expects Lake Ontario shoreline to be declared federal disaster area

Jun 18, 2019

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) toured flood-ravaged portions of Lake Ontario Monday, saying he expects the entire Lake Ontario shoreline will be declared a disaster area shortly. That would allow homeowners, businesses and governments to access federal disaster dollars. He also presented a three-tiered plan to deal with the record high water levels.

Standing just a few feet from puddles, piled-up sandbags and flooded docks at a marina in the Cayuga County village of Fair Haven, Schumer spoke to worried lake residents.

"What we've got to do is get (Plan) 2014 totally revamped and changed so it works for us, and that is why everybody is here," Schumer said, "and we have to do it before the next major flood appears, because it’s too late for this one!"

His plan for dealing with record-high water levels starts with repairing the collapsed infrastructure and undertaking studies to find long term ways to protect the lakefront no matter how high waters rise. His other idea touches with what has become the most controversial aspect of the flooding: what to do about the International Joint Commission's Plan 2014, which changed the way water levels on Lake Ontario are regulated.

However, the Nature Conservancy is calling upon government leaders to focus on comprehensive solutions to the flooding, rather than political posturing and blaming Plan 2014 for problems caused by extreme weather.

"No plan – not Plan 2014, not the previous plan (Plan 1958D), nor any other – can prevent flooding when there is this much water in the Great Lakes and Ottawa River watersheds," said Central and Western New York Director Jim Howe of the global conservation group. "To claim otherwise is irresponsible and misleading to the people and communities victimized by flooding."

Howe said instead of fighting nature, landowners "can leverage its power" and the Nature Conservancy is "eager to work with local communities" on how to do that.

"Instead of promising property owners something they cannot deliver—a Lake Ontario that does not flood—our government leaders should focus on the many ways we can begin to build a safer future," said Howe.

He said the "harder and more important task" is creating "a long-term resiliency plan for all those affected by high waters."

Charles Driscoll, who studies the effects of climate change on the Great lakes at Syracuse University, offers another perspective. Driscoll said heavy winter snow pack and a wet spring on all the Great Lakes drove flooding conditions two years ago and they seem to be repeating this year.

“So it’s really not so much driven by specific water management policies, but it’s the weather that’s really driving these conditions. Under changing climate, we’re seeing more and more precipitation and more and more intense precipitation,” Driscoll said.

Driscoll said that the region is not likely to see flooding every year, but warmer lake waters combined with more intense precipitation patterns will likely mean that these flooding events become more normal. He also said that in order to any fight future flooding, preserving wetlands is extremely important.

“Wetlands act as sponges, so if we eliminate wetlands for urban development or for agricultural development, we lose that capacity to store water," he said, "and so it’s going to run off faster into surface waters and makes lands more susceptible to flooding.”