New York Sues International Commission Over Lake Ontario Flooding

Waves on Lake Ontario, with Toronto in the background. (SYSS Mouse via Wikipedia)

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (CN) – Poor management by the international group that oversees the waters of the Great Lakes led to hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage due to flooding two out of the last three years, New York officials claim in a lawsuit.

The blame for rising waters lies with a large increase in spring precipitation in the past three years, with which the poorly run International Joint Commission (IJC) has been unable to contend, the suit claims.

“For two out of the last three years, catastrophic flooding has laid waste to the New York communities on the shores of Lake Ontario,” according to the suit, filed late Wednesday by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which blames the IJC’s “tortious mismanagement” and “lethargy.”

The IJC – a partnership between the United States and Canada created in the 1950s – is charged with protecting lakeshore property owners and shipping interests along the five Great Lakes.

In 2016, the group’s 10-member board decided to alter how it manages water levels, claiming climate change necessitated new measures including greater outflows from the Moses-Saunders Power Dam. The IJC acknowledged the new measures could lead to some flooding, though the suit claims water levels on Lake Ontario rose to record levels weeks after the IJC instituted the new plan.

Despite the damage, the IJC has not made any changes to its plan to prevent future flooding issues, the department claims.

In 2017, the organization capped outflows to aid the commercial shipping industry on the lake, which caused further flooding to residences and lakefront businesses. Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency for eight shoreline counties in May 2017, and 90% of respondents to a survey reported flooding on their property, the suit states.

New York officials have contended the IJC could have released more water from the dam and released it earlier to mitigate the flooding, which struck again this past spring.

However, the IJC delayed its response – even after a February letter from the governor pleading for the group to “maximize outflows” from Lake Ontario – and in April the state declared a state of emergency for several counties due to flooding. In May, the IJC finally allowed outflows from the dam.

The state’s lawsuit claims the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as well as staff from the New York State Office of Emergency Management and New York National Guard, have had to shoulder much of the financial cost of erecting water barriers and rebuilding after the floods.

In 2017, the state of New York set aside $170 million in homeowner assistance and repairs. Two years later, the state created a Lake Ontario Resiliency and Economic Development Initiative to deal with the recurring flooding and earmarked another $300 million to fund shoreline emergency and relief efforts.

“The IJC cannot saddle the state with the brunt of the damage,” the 24-page suit states. “The IJC must compensate DEC [Department of Environmental Conservation] and the state for the destruction its gross mismanagement has wrought on the New York communities on the shores of Lake Ontario.”

Water levels last month were still above high-water trigger levels and “well above” historical averages, the state says. Cuomo has said the high water levels are “the new normal” and castigated the IJC for doing “absolutely nothing to reduce the damage to the state of New York.”

Basil Seggos, the commissioner of the DEC, said that “time and time again, Governor Cuomo has called on the IJC to put the safety and integrity of New York’s shoreline communities ahead of shipping interests … [but] the IJC failed to act.”

A spokesperson for the IJC did not return a phone call seeking comment.

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