After Bernie Gigas’ newly purchased home in the Edgemere neighborhood of Greece flooded for the first time in 2017, he took matters into his own hands.
Gigas invited himself to meetings with the Army Corps of Engineers, who monitor the Great Lakes.
“I recreated what (publicly available data) was out there and did my own study of flooding on (Lake Ontario). Then I invited myself to a few meetings with a presentation,” says Gigas, who used his presentation time to argue that the burden of flooding was unfair and changes should be made.
The meetings also included members of the International Joint Commission, a binational entity established to resolve disputes over use of the waters shared by Canada and the United States. IJC members kept him in mind when seeking residents to serve on an advisory board.
“They told me, ‘We were specifically looking for people who don’t agree with us.’ My name was first on their list,” Gigas says with a chuckle.
The Public Advisory Group, which Gigas continues to serve on, was part of an expedited review of Plan 2014, the outflow management regulations for Lake Ontario. This review began in February 2020 following record flooding in 2017 and 2019. The review recently concluded its information gathering phase.
Changes to Plan 2014 could provide better protection for shoreline residents like Gigas and business owners who are impacted by extremely high water levels. However, the issue is a complex one to tackle. While homeowners and businesses would like protection from high water levels, some experts say that such protection would be minimal at best and could be costly to the environment and other communities downstream.
“It has been a long two-and-a-half-year process, but change on this level takes a long time, especially when it affects so many people,” says Jim Howe, a senior policy adviser for freshwater at the Nature Conservancy. “It’s important (that) every perspective—the environment, shipping, fisheries, First Nations people—everyone is heard with a system this complex.”
Roughly 8.75 million people live in municipalities that abut Lake Ontario, Howe estimates, and an additional 4.7 million live along the St. Lawrence River between Cape Vincent and Trois-Rivieres.
Already, the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management Committee has released its report on Phase 1 findings, which provides more detailed information to the IJC and offers a new device for flood outcome predictions in the interactive “Decision Support Tool.” GLAM was seeking public comment on the report until April 18.
Now, the IJC will submit its findings and suggestions to the U.S. and Canadian governments for short-term alterations to Plan 2014 and then move to refocus on addressing extreme high and low water levels over the longer term in Phase 2.
Lake Ontario flooding
The IJC approved Plan 2014 in December 2016, replacing the previous regulations set in 1963 (named Plan 1958-D). The updated plan reflected improved climate forecasting and understanding of ecological impact over the past 50 years.
However, shortly after Plan 2014 took effect, increased precipitation levels caused record flooding on Lake Ontario in 2017 and again in 2019. In Sodus Bay, cottages were flooded and had to be abandoned for months. The sewer line was in distress, causing wastewater to enter the system.
“We were caught totally flatfooted by 2017 because it broke the usual 20-year cycle. But we’re the type of town that is ‘all hands on deck’ when it comes to emergencies. We all help each other. Still, we’re just barely catching up to that damage,” says Dave McDowell, mayor of Sodus Point, who is upset with Plan 2014 as well as the recovery response from the state.
The 2017 and 2019 flood events prompted then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Attorney General Letitia James to file a lawsuit against the IJC in November 2019, saying the commission’s members had “failed their primary mission.”
“(Cuomo) unfortunately blamed IJC despite what, and we know this, his advisers were telling him—‘It’s not the plan, don’t say it’s the plan, it’s just weather,’” says Howe, who also serves on the PAG. “He’s a politician and it’s an easy way to pass the buck and blame somebody else.”
“When Hurricane Sandy hit the coast, the Jersey shore didn’t have IJC to blame,” notes Tony David, director of the Environment Division of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe. “The IJC can’t fight back, can’t roll up their sleeves and get into a scrap with local politicians. It’s categorically outside their jurisdiction. They are basically domestic diplomats. They have to take the high ground.”
IJC’s charter does limit its power. However, the commission was able to spearhead an expedited review of Plan 2014, which was launched following the public outcry.
The debate over Plan 2014
Fundamentally, Plan 2014 dictates how much water should be released from Lake Ontario into the St. Lawrence River primarily via the Moses-Saunders Power Dam. When certain “trigger limits” are hit at extreme high or low levels, the IJC can act to mitigate the damage. But that process is not timely.
“Think of Lake Ontario like a giant bathtub in your house and in order to drain that tub, you have a straw at the end. The St. Lawrence River is this narrow little spigot compared to the size of the lake. And it’s not a very deep river either,” Howe explains. “It takes a long time to move water out of it. So, changes to water levels can’t happen fast. They can make a difference, but it can’t happen fast.”
“People who think the dam can drop a foot off the lake, we’d have to have 10 St. Lawrences to do that,” says David, who is also a U.S. member of International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board, an entity responsible for managing outflow rates via the Moses-Saunders dam.
Lake Ontario, which has a volume of 393 cubic miles (more than 600,000 Olympic swimming pools), is the final destination for water overflow from the other Great Lakes. According to Save Our Sodus, another organization on the advisory board, an inch drop in Lake Ontario levels results in an 11-inch rise in the St. Lawrence River.
In addition, the St. Lawrence also is fed by the Ottawa River, which can overflow when precipitation levels are high. Montreal, with a metropolitan population of 4.29 million and elevations at or near sea level, is in particular danger when it comes to flooding.
“In a lot of ways, it’s like a zero-sum game. If you want to protect people in Montreal, people in Lake Ontario are going to have to pay. If you want to protect Lake Ontario, people in Montreal will have to deal with it,” Howe says.
While other involved parties disagree with much about Plan 2014, they know that flooding is an inevitable part of living lakeside. However, they believe communities living downriver are getting more help from the plan.
“There’s an attitude of ‘I’ve lived on the lake for 50 years and I know what I’m talking about,’ or ‘If we had the old 1958 plan, none of this would have happened.’ That’s just nonsense. We all draw benefit from the dam everyday,” says Gigas. “If (Montreal) is flooding, that means (Lake Ontario) is flooding; it’s just how that works.”
Still, Gigas thinks the plan is not balanced fairly.
“Montreal can say, ‘We don’t give a shit. We have a hard limit. You can’t release any water.’ That’s hard coded into the plan. I’d call it an oversight, but it wasn’t an oversight. It was put in there on purpose and the Americans must have been asleep at the wheel when it happened. But fair’s fair. We shouldn’t suffer just because they have more people.”
Adds Dave Scudder, a member of SOS and the PAG: “We’re looking for shared pain, because right now that doesn’t exist, but it could be easily achieved.”
David of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe disagrees.
“In the 2017 flooding, over 6,000 people were displaced from Quebec (province), 1,000 houses were unsalvageable. It was a forced managed retreat. Does that sound like they’re being favored by the plan?”
Still, opponents of the plan argue it allows high levels that are too high and low levels that are too low, the latter of which is very worrying for business owners on the Lake Ontario shoreline.
“A high water year will scare you, it’s inconvenient and it’s costly. But a low water year puts you out of business,” says Scudder. “When you can’t get out into the lake because it’s mud, that’s a huge problem for marinas. They can’t get around it, no one can.”
Many Rochesterians visit Sodus Bay. If the area is forced to close due either to low water or flooding, it has a direct impact on the economic health of the town.
Those higher highs and lower lows which Scudder warns against were designed to be a natural ebb and flow for wetlands. When water levels have this fluctuation, it prevents one species from dominating the area, as has already happened since the construction of the dam in 1959. An explosion of invasive cattails in the 1970s damaged biodiversity in the area. Eel Bay in the Thousand Islands was dominated by cattails for nearly 30 years before things started to change due to other environmental actions beyond water management.
As previously reported by the Rochester Beacon, beyond the biodiversity and outdoor recreation factors, there is economic value in wetlands. A study of the 8,000 acres of wetlands upstream from Boston by the Army Corps of Engineers revealed $65 million in benefits. Lake Ontario and the opening of the St. Lawrence have 64,000 acres of wetlands. Howe calculates the ecosystem could offer a potential $500 million in shoreline protection, water filtration and ecotourism.
In addition, wetlands provide protection to shorelines. Excess from high water events will be trapped there and slowly released back into the environment. Wetlands also serve as a filter, with plants dropping out the sediment and collecting pollutants.
Gigas questions these arguments, however. He does not believe wetlands make a dramatic difference in flood prevention.
“The lake has an area of 7,000 square miles. You can’t store that amount of water in wetlands,” he says.
“I love nature. It’s one of the reasons I moved to Edgemere. Last week, I saw a snowy owl. When was the last time you saw a snowy owl not in the zoo?” Gigas continues. “There are valid environmental concerns with wetlands, but they have nothing to do with water levels. Environmentalists, if they had their way, would have everyone off the lake.”
Save Our Sodus has held charity events for the wetlands, which organizers view as vital resources.
“But there are other options besides Plan 2014 for protecting wetlands,” McDowell says, pointing to the restoration of the Northern Montezuma Wetlands near Seneca Falls. Some 750 acres of the complex are planned to be enhanced under the Reimagine the Canals Initiative.
The long view
As important as Plan 2014 is, it is dangerous to rely on it alone to limit flooding, all parties agree.
“The system was never designed as a flood prevention tool. The Plan 2014 debate has allowed people to rebrand the issues. This narrative shields you from analysis of your own municipality’s responsibility,” David says. “The more we put off understanding the root causes (such as climate change), the less we are focusing on solutions. We’re digging our heels in to maintain a status quo.”
Howe admits that no plan can eliminate the risk of living on a shoreline. He believes the discussion should shift from Plan 2014 to sustainable living on the lake.
“Strategic or managed retreat needs to be seen as a viable option for properties with repetitive losses,” he says.
Save Our Sodus resisted its initial impulse to pursue a lawsuit against the IJC, like the state government or homeowners in Sodus and Greece. Instead, it has found ways to advocate with the organizations already in place.
“We used to say that (the IJC) threw bones at the wall to determine what to do next. Working with them, they have been well-spoken, well-educated and respectful. It’s a pleasure to work with them,” says Scudder, who hopes they can hold an in-person meeting someday. “The time spent calling for repeals was ineffective and probably not time or money well spent.”
The engagement from IJC in the expedited review process was an element SOS says was lacking under the previous U.S. Commissioner and Chair. They are also encouraged by the DST as an early warning tool when deviations cannot mitigate weather extremes.
In addition, the advocacy branch of SOS is currently working with the state government on establishing a revolving loan program for flood victims out of the federal STORM Act and McDowell serves on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative as a leading voice for coastal resiliency.
Gigas similarly believes that more resources are needed for shoreline residents and that stereotypes of this population are working against this happening.
“We’re talking about $250,000 houses in Rochester, we’re not talking about top rich millionaires here,” Gigas says. (The latest data from real estate company Redfin lists median home sale prices in ZIP codes west of Irondequoit Bay from $164,000 to $190,000.)
“Small towns just off the lake rely on as much as 80 percent of their tax base from the lakeshore. We’re talking about the livelihoods of people and towns both here,” Gigas adds, noting that FEMA estimates that every inch of flooding can cause as much as $25,000 per home in damage.
Says Howe: “Given climate change, we’re all bracing for it to get higher, honestly. These are events that will happen with an increased frequency and we need to be better prepared.”
Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.