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MPP Smith backs call for local representation at IJC table to address high-water concerns

MPP Todd Smith

As shoreland property owners in Bay of Quinte and elsewhere on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River raise their voices about flooding and record high-water levels, the Ontario government is advocating to increase representation on the International Joint Commission (IJC).

Prince Edward County Mayor Steve Ferguson was pleased several hundred people attended a public rally in Trenton Wednesday night, organized by Quinte West Mayor Jim Harrison, in conjunction with United Shorelines Ontario to protest Plan 2014.

USO president Shara Delicate explained the plan, experts spoke about trending lake level conditions and all noted the importance to exert pressure on the federal government to amend, or repeal the plan.

On a municipal level, noted Ferguson, the small group of six mayors who met in September has grown to include municipal members of the Eastern Ontario Mayor’s Caucus and could soon be joined by municipalities in the Eastern Ontario Wardens Caucus.

With the support of Todd Smith, MPP for Bay of Quinte, and neighbouring MPPs, Premier Doug Ford has written to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to urge the federal government to act immediately to appoint an IJC Commissioner from the region hit hard by record high water levels in both 2017 and 2019.

Ford noted flooding has caused extensive damage to public and private property and severely impacted businesses that support the region’s vital tourism economy. He indicated the cost to municipalities, private landowners and businesses in the region “will reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars.” The Premier expressed his disappointment the IJC has not been more responsive to concerns raised.

“The people living and working on the shores of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence fear the future of their homes and businesses hang in the balance as decisions are made by the IJC over the coming weeks and months,” Ford wrote. “It is imperative that the voices of those communities most impacted by the decisions made by the IJC are represented at the table.”

As Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River are international boundary waters shared with the United States, Canadian jurisdiction for water-level control is the federal level. Canada is a party to the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, which established the IJC.

In June, Smith wrote federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna to ask her to engage the IJC for an expedient review of Plan 2014, a protocol that has governed water-level management on the international waterways for the past three years. He advocated for revisions that would introduce proactive management tools to lessen impacts on shoreland owners. He appreciated Ford’s action.

“I’ve heard clearly from constituents who have experienced damaging flooding, sleepless nights, and lingering doubts about their property values – both in terms of their day-to-day living and monetarily,” said Smith. “I thank Premier Ford for standing up for these residents and pushing for them to have true representation in these discussions that mean so much to them.”

Smith expressed hope that Trudeau will act upon Ford’s request.

“People are scared this nightmare will continue into 2020 and beyond. It’s time for the Prime Minister to acknowledge this problem and address it,” said Smith. “By agreeing to appoint someone with lived experience as an IJC Commissioner as Premier Ford requested – he would be making a tangible step in that direction.”

Quinte area municipal politicians created a joint statement in September calling on the IJC (body that controls the water flows) to revoke the Lake Ontario – St. Lawrence River plan and reinstate Plan 1958.
The flooding, they stated is “a man-made problem, not a direct result of climate change” and stated the IJC is “refusing to take responsibility and needs to be held accountable.”

The IJC, in its response letter to to the politicians, stated “no regulation plan can fully eliminate high water events on Lake Ontario or the St. Lawrence River system. This is the reality that we much all come to term with, and work together to mitigate future impacts on all affected shoreline communities.”

It also stated the IJC would have faced the same constraints if the old regulation plan had remained in place.

However, it did note the commission and board are investigating options to further reduce water levels ahead of spring 2020, including flows that could affect the commercial navigation season in the late fall, or early spring.

“We are also seeking the resources to perform an accelerated review of the performance of Plan 2014. This review would help identify what measures might help reduce flood risks both upstream and downstream.”

Further, it says it will use internal IJC funds to start projects that would support an accelerated review, including an economic assessment of the impact of high flows that would temporarily halt commercial navigation, a project to engage south shore municipalities in documenting high water impacts, and an assessment of issues related to low water and ice conditions on Lake St. Lawrence during winter operations.”

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  1. Linda Pilszak says:

    Dennis Fox. The IJC is very much to blame for this historical flooding 2 out of 3 years and another expected catastrophic in 2020 with a foot higher. The shipping industry needs to take a share of the burden. It cannot be put squarely on the backs of riparians, businesses and municipalities along the shores.

    The IJC purposely held water back until their “trigger” level was reached. This was already a flood level. If they want to blame climate change then they need to work with the climate as it comes. This is simple common sense but common sense does not prevail when there is a dastardly Plan in place.

    As for people building in flood plains – there have been homesteads, marinas and municipalities along these shores for a hundred years that have never experienced this level of flooding. So in your scenario if there is a forest fire you would tell those that lose their homes too bad they shouldn’t build near a forest? A train derailment and people shouldn’t live near train tracks? An air crash and people shouldn’t live near an airport? Your argument is nonsense.

    The IJC also implemented Plan 2012 on Lake Superior which held water back there. We are now paying the price of that with wet springs and heavy snowfalls because they are at now at the highest level in history which just flows down the way. In reality we have experienced these winters and springs in the last 50 years that Plan 1958DD was in place. There were years with higher levels (with about 20 in between- not 2) that I agree were weather related and natural but most definitely NOT to the levels we are experiencing now.

    The environment and wetland excuse is just that. Large chunks of wetlands the size of small islands have been floating down the river. Habitats of the resident animals were destroyed. So put wildlife before people? As I read above both you and Chris Kean seem to be in agreement that no wetlands have been destroyed in over 50 years so quite obviously something was working.

    We all know that the water is being held back for the shipping industry and the hydroelectric power that Quebec sells to NYS because NYS wants GREEN electricity.

    Pierre Trudeau appointed Pierre Beland as co-chair of the IJC and needs to replace him. This committee needs a unanimous vote to make any changes to the plan and Pierre Beland will never back down. I watched him on the Steve Paiken show on TVO this summer spewing his lies to the nation. He even said that they have no control over the level of the lake. What an imbecile.

    The other interesting thing about the IJC and this plan is that they made themselves immune from lawsuits- of course they knew what was coming when they held back water. They knew there would be flooding. The tennis ball theory was a joke. It turned into three beach balls and certainly not from extra rain. The trigger limit that is already a flood level proved they knew what they were doing and protected Montreal with the F Limit and shipping with the L Limit and themselves from prosecution. Purposely destroying property makes them criminals above the law.

    They are now saying they will make every effort possible to avoid flooding next year – really? They follow that will some bologny about not affecting other interests meaning they can’t affect shipping. Well people have had it. We are angry and we’re not going to take it anymore. Reducing outflows every Saturday is not going to get the levels low enough by the end of December where they need to be. They need to be increasing the outflows big time and the shipping industry can go back to using tugboats. If they don’t and we get 250’ plus next year there will be deaths from this. That they can have in their consciences.

    Our elected officials were elected to represent the people in whatever capacity is necessary and this is pretty important.

  2. LB says:

    Thanks Chris. Really interesting. It is likely that no one Plan will be ideal for the interest all stakeholders, some of whom have opposing interests – shipping, environmental, native land holders, residential land owners, government lands, industry, tourism etc. The affects of Plan 2014 are destructive and the intended results are confusing and counter-intuitive: cause severe flooding to prevent flooding, create and save wetlands as natural erosion barriers but accelerating the erosion thousands of kms of shorelines in the process etc. Perhaps as in nature, we need a better balance and stepping back by hitting the re-set button on Plan 2014 is the first step.

  3. Chris Keen says:

    I have searched online to no avail for any specific information to explain why Plan 1958DD (established when the Seaway was built) needed modification. The only explanation I can find is this now-ironic statement from an IJC board member: “Plan 2014 is a modern plan for managing water levels and flows that will restore the health and diversity of coastal wetlands, perform better under changing climate conditions and continue to protect against extreme high and low water levels.” In other pieces I read, wetland restoration is also cited as the reason for the change.

    In an online scientific paper (the only one I could find): “Plan 2014: The historical evolution of Lake Ontario–St. Lawrence River regulation” by Murray Clamen & Daniel Macfarlane $50 U.S. The abstract for it reads:

    “Though the new water regime [Plan 1958DD] provided benefits for certain interests (primarily power, navigation and property owners), it could not always adequately cope with high and low water supplies into the system outside those originally anticipated. Moreover, as is shown, the creation of the St. Lawrence dual project and the connected method of regulation had a range of negative ecological impacts and harmed other interests – including the Mohawk groups in the territory that straddles the project area.”

    Note there is no mention of restoring wetlands though that does not mean it is not discussed. The high-low lake levels anticipated in Plan 1958DD are those that have governed new construction along the shorelines. (Those in Plan 2014 are higher.)

    The U.S. Department of Transport described the plan saying:

    “The IJC characterized Plan 2014 as a way to benefit the environment by restoring ‘more natural flows’ to the St. Lawrence River to allow for more flooding during wet seasons and more restricted water flows during dry seasons. … DOT and the SLSDC (Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corp.) supported the inclusion of environmental considerations but had concerns regarding Plan 2014’s negative implications for the navigability of the Seaway by virtue of requirements that would negatively impact safe navigation in the Seaway.”

    “[T]o ensure the safety of navigation” … “trigger levels” were established that “would govern the set water level points at which the SLSDC would be able to obtain a deviation from Plan 2014 to provide for necessary water levels in the Seaway.” (Note that the concern is for the Seaway and commercial shipping.)

    It turns out these trigger levels the Americans insisted be included only kicked in after serious flooding had already taken place along the Lake Ontario shoreline. These triggers have now been put aside to allow the lake level to continue to be lowered.

    So how did 16 years of study go so wrong? Climate change is likely part of the problem, but clearly having trigger levels so high that flooding is inevitable is unacceptable. There is now so much pressure on the IJC that the plan will have to be reassessed and modified.

    In the meantime, those affected can only hope that the one-inch drop per week that is currently happening will be enough to prevent flooding in 2020.

  4. Dennis Fox says:

    Hi Chris – thanks for your comments. When I made the statement about the IJC and the Americans it was in reference to the article that I attached earlier. At that time, I was unaware of the info that was to follow about New York complaining to the IJC as well.

    What I would be interested in knowing is what info did the IJC respond to back in 2014 that caused them to make the changes they did – and do those conditions still exist?

  5. Chris Keen says:

    Dennis, you wrote “…and at no time do the Americans blame the IJC for the high water levels…” I was simply clarifying that the number and scope of the lawsuits indicate that some do.

    Now that the IJC has given the go-ahead to release as much water as necessary in an attempt to avoid flooding next year discussions with ALL stakeholders over what to do moving forward can begin. The one lesson that is clear to me is that whatever is done to modify Plan 2014 it must include the ability to be flexible as conditions demand.

    It is certainly not going to be a problem that can be “solved”.

  6. Dennis Fox says:

    Thanks to all for the additional information – as was pointed the reason for no additional loss of wetlands in PEC since 1967, is due to it already being destroyed prior to that time. Then again the the chart only pertained to PEC – which is hardly representative of the entire Great Lakes area, in fact it relates to only a very small area. The Oswego news article was informative – so thanks. I don’t believe anyone (including me) ever suggested that the IJC actions were not in part responsible for the higher water levels – but I also believe that a lot of the damage was a result of poor planning practices allowing construction within flood plains. I believe what we are experiencing now is the result of the “perfect storm” where we have the results of years of poor planning, increased rain and snowfall over the last couple of years, climate change world wide and the IJC decisions. Isn’t this just what people have been warned about when it comes to the impact of climate change? The fact is this is just the start of seeing climate change and we haven’t come anywhere close to experiencing the worst of it. The high levels are not the result of the IJC’s decisions alone and blaming them won’t help and it isn’t the answer to the problem. As the chart that was included in a previous post indicates, wetlands help clean and control water levels – since most of them a now gone, it could explain why we are experiencing our current high water levels – it really is a complicated situation with more than one factor to consider.

    Thanks for the discussion.

  7. Chris Keen says:

    LB. Thanks for your post. Looking at the Wetland Loss and Impacts map it’s interesting to note it shows there has been virtually no loss of wetlands along the shores of Lake Ontario in our area since 1967. There had been little if any up to that point. Instead, according to the map, the majority of wetland loss had already occurred on inland lakes and rivers in the area by this time. The map shows virtually no additional losses either inland or along the Lake Ontario shore since 1967.

  8. Chris Keen says:

    Dennis, some Americans do blame the IJC for the high water levels hence the lawsuits being filed right and left.

    This article talks about New York state’s suit against the IJC.

  9. Dennis Fox says:

    Please find below a link that explains some of what is happening now. I find it interesting that it is a fairly recent article from the Washington Post, and at no time do the Americans blame the IJC for the high water levels – they too have a vested interest in the Great Lakes and the IJC. I believe this article does explain why we are experiencing flooding. There is far more to this problem than just having the IJC opening the tap wider.

    Anyway, I have tried to provide some additional info(as I said I would try to do in a previous post)- enjoy the read, it is interesting.

  10. Dennis Fox says:

    To ignore the reality that lake levels don’t ever change is naive. The destruction of our wetlands has been a well known fact for years, if some people are unaware of this, then that is their problem – they need to read more and to realize that by denying it won’t make it better.

    It is also a fact that far too often building approvals are granted for construction within flood zones – how many homes and cottages now damaged fall within these zones?

    I have asked for clarification on whether or not these current water levels are artificially high, or do they reflect the levels that once existed years ago? I will try to find out and share it later.

    The world and our environment is changing. Here’s something to think about – the southern US is experiencing a drought and has been for a number of years and they need water. Don’t ignore the possibility that they are looking at the Great Lakes as a source of water – maybe one day we might need our lakes to remain at a high level??

    Anyway, I too believe that all levels of government can be involved in this, but it doesn’t change the fact that when it comes to protecting our environment neither Smith nor Ford have anything to brag about.

  11. LB says:

    The County being an island should be calling on all levels of government. There’s more at stake than just flooding. Erosion of the County shoreline is very damaging and irreversible. It will probably cost a few million dollars to rebuild public docks, protect or relocate roads, assess bridges near high water, fix the ferry docks, repair or close beaches and whatever else is impacted by the high water along the County’s 500 kms of shoreline. So that warrants attention, no? Or is “yup, Bob should’tna built so close” the general way folks see this high water issue?

    At first the IJC’s position appeared to be ‘hey, the 2017 flood wasn’t our fault. Nothing to do with us’. Then in 2018 & 2019 it appeared they were saying ‘not only is this all nature’s fault, no committee’s policy can ever counter the effects’. Now they seem to be saying (2020) ‘ok, it kinda was us but we need to do this going forward to save the environment so get used to it”.

    The notion that “the current water level is needed to maintain current wetlands and to re-establish those that were destroyed in the past by development” is inane. Where is the study that says suddenly raising (2017) Lake Ontario by 3 ft which impacts 1,100 kms of Lake Ontario shoreline is the best thing for the environment/wetlands?? And that by doing so from here on in, they will be correcting past environmental mistakes without creating any serious new ones?

  12. Chris Keen says:

    Sorry, Dennis, the flooding threat posed by the current level of Lake Ontario should be a concern for ALL levels of government. All we are asking is that the IJC revert to their practices before Plan 2014 was implemented and seemingly contributed to flooding in two of the past three years. Having done this there can then be a TRANSPARENT discussion about any amendments to the plan so that ALL stakeholders have their say and a complete understanding of the implications of any changes. Shipping cannot continue to be the number one priority and to hell with everything else which has been the IJC’s attitude since 2017.

    The Premier and Todd Smith are doing their duty to their constituents and urging the federal government (distracted for months by the election) to exercise their jurisdiction over the IJC and come up with an answer. The regional mayors have done the same.

    Having done this, they can now devote their time to the other issues you point out which are within their mandate.

  13. Dennis Fox says:

    I understand the need to challenge the IJC and their position to ensure that their decisions are correct – or not. I’m not sure if the lake levels have been artificially low for many years or are they now artificially high? If someone can clarify this, I would appreciate it.

    Since 1957 and the St. Lawrence Seaway, our lakes have been managed very poorly by both sides of the border, where business and profits were the top priority and not our environment. I believe we are seeing the results of some of that thinking now.

    One report stated that the current water level is needed to maintain current wetlands and to re-establish those that were destroyed in the past by development. Wetlands are needed to encourage wildlife and to prevent flooding – the very problem we are now facing. Much of this development was due to the poor decisions made by many municipalities wanting development dollars and by the Province’s OMB – which historically was made up by developers. An organization made for developers to make them more money. One needs to ask if homes and cottages were suppose to be built so close to the shoreline – often within flood zones? I understand that the solution now may be a very expensive one – but we need the right decision, not a political one. Our environment depends on it.

    I find it self-serving for both MPP Smith and Premier Ford to be calling on the federal government for action. When, I believe both have not shown any concerns for our environment by challenging the Carbon Tax in court. These two know how to waste tax dollars and to deflect attention away from themselves, but I haven’t seen responsible action out of either. Sorry, I can’t take MPP Smith nor Premier Ford seriously at all. Their time would be better spent dealing with issues within their mandate – like Education, Healthcare, Improved Planning Standards – and by implementing the Carbon Tax.

    Forget the “Buck – A- Beer” approach to politics and deflecting responsibility elsewhere – our environment demands better than that.

  14. Chris Keen says:

    Thank you Todd Smith and Premier Ford for putting protocol aside and becoming actively involved in this issue. The IJC may fall under the purview of the federal government, but any action it has taken to date has not resulted in in the level of Lake Ontario being lowered enough to avoid flooding in 2020.

    Only continued pressure from all levels of government, on both sides of the border, is going to pressure the IJC to act to avoid another catastrophe.

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