Schumer pushes IJC partners to support reduction of high Lake Ontario water levels

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Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., attends a ceremony to unveil a portrait honoring former Speaker of the House John Boehner on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Michael A. McCoy)

(WWTI) – In a personal meeting with Consul General of Canada, Phyllis Yaffe, and her successor, Deputy Consul General Khawar Nasim, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer recently expressed his concerns over Lake Ontario’s above-average water levels for this time of the year and urged the officials to do everything possible to mitigate the risk of a repeat of last year’s historic flooding.  

Specifically, Schumer called for the officials to advocate for enhanced shipping safety maneuvers and concomitant increased outflows at the Moses-Saunders Dam to both the Canadian Seaway and to the Canadian commissioners of the International Joint Commission (IJC). Schumer argued that while the outflows are already significant, there is further room to increase them when done in conjunction with enhanced shipping safety measures. Schumer said this would continue safe shipping along the Seaway and help ensure that both residents of Upstate New York and Canada have their sky-high risk of future flooding mitigated. Last month, Schumer also urged the St. Lawrence Seaway and American commissioners of the IJC to support increased outflows at the Moses-Saunders Dam.

“During our meeting, I told Consul General Yaffe and Deputy Consul General Nasim that we need to do more—now—to mitigate flooding risks in the spring, especially increasing outflows at the Moses-Saunders Dam in conjunction with enhanced shipping safety maneuvers. After experiencing record flooding in two of the last three years and already seeing sky-high water levels this season, there is an urgent need to act now to prevent the worst,” said Senator Schumer. “That’s why I called on our Canadian partners to support the further increase of outflows at the Moses-Saunders Dam and to express that support to the Canadian Seaway and Canadian Commissioners of the IJC, as I have done on the American side. With the risk of a repeat of these immense damages looming, we must take every sensible measure possible to protect communities along Lake Ontario.”

Schumer explained that last summer, in the midst of flooding season, when the Moses-Saunders Dam outflows were increased to 200 cubic meters per second (m3/s) above the normal safe navigation flow limit (L), the Saint Lawrence Seaway accommodated the increased outflows by employing additional operational and navigation safety precautions such as speed controls in sections of the Seaway, a prohibition on meeting or passing vessels in certain areas, positioning a tug boat at some locks to assist vessels if needed, and reduced speeds to minimize vessel wakes. Schumer explained that while outflows now remain at L+200 m3/s, not all of these same enhanced precautions are still being employed, indicating that outflows could be safely increased now above L+200 m3/s if these measures are reinstated. Schumer added that in order for outflows to be further increased, the measure must be supported by the Canadian Commissioners of the IJC and the Canadian Seaway.

With Lake Ontario’s water level currently 19 inches higher than the average for this time of the year and a repeat of last year’s historic flooding looking likely, Schumer called for the immediate institution of all the enhanced security protocols to enable increased dam outflows.

Schumer has been pushing emergency preparation measures along Lake Ontario for years, in the wake of devastating, repetitive flooding. Earlier this year, Schumer traveled to Niagara, Cayuga and Monroe Counties to tour the flooding damage and advocate for funding for the Great Lakes Coastal Resiliency Study, which would seek to identify and suggest fixes for vulnerabilities across the Great Lakes’ shorelines. In March, Schumer voiced his support for the confirmation of Jane L. Corwin, Robert C. Sisson and Lance V. Yohe to the IJC, to ensure the Commission was appropriately staffed to address the rising Lake Ontario water levels, and on May 16 announced their successful confirmation. Also this May, Schumer announced that following his push, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued an official Declaration of Emergency to activate its Emergency Operations Center to join with state and local efforts to assist Lake Ontario communities in the event of flooding. Additionally, Schumer called on the International Joint Commission (IJC) and International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board of Control to assess and take all actions possible to mitigate flood risks to surrounding communities, including the appropriate maximization of outflows at the Moses-Saunders Dam.

Furthermore, Schumer explained, in 2017, many communities along the southern shore of Lake Ontario suffered significant flooding and related property damage, economic dislocation and significant negative impacts to quality of life. Prior to the flooding, Schumer successfully called on the USACE to activate its Emergency Operations Center, allowing the USACE to assist New York State in response efforts and deploy technical assistance teams. Additionally, Schumer helped facilitate a “General Permit”, signed by the USACE and NYSDEC in 2017, as well. Schumer also played a paramount role in securing aid for these communities in the wake of the flooding, including arranging for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deploy two expert federal mitigation teams to Lake Ontario communities to help address the flooding issues and successfully pushing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to issue a major disaster declaration, which enabled federal recovery and repair funding to flow to Jefferson, Niagara, Orleans, Oswego, St. Lawrence, Wayne, Cayuga, and Monroe Counties.

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