Fed up with inaction, Brindisi vows to 'flood the IJC'
WASHINGTON D.C. — Rep. Anthony Brindisi on Wednesday launched a campaign to inundate international water regulators with letters and messages from Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River flood victims in an attempt to compel action on the high waters that impacted the region throughout the summer.
Brindisi, D-Utica, told The Palladium-Times his #FloodTheIJC campaign will send an interrogative letter each week to the International Joint Commission (IJC) — the bi-national body that oversees shared waterways between the U.S. and Canada — until he finally gets a satisfactory answer on the IJC’s plan to combat flooding. Brindisi is also calling on property owners to deluge the IJC with their own accounts of Lake Ontario flooding.
Local officials and shoreline property owners have largely blamed the IJC for record-high water levels on Lake Ontario in 2017 and 2019, and have consistently called on the organization to make changes to the water management plan put in place in 2016.
Brindisi, who has joined other local representatives in demanding action this year, said the IJC has failed to present a “clear and cohesive solution” to continued flooding in Oswego and surrounding counties.
Lake Ontario water levels reached 246.06 feet this week — the lowest point since late March — but remain about 15 inches higher than average for this time of year. Water levels reached a record 249.08 feet in June, surpassing the previous record of 248.92 feet set in May 2017.
Frustrated with the IJC response, Brindisi said the commission has been both unresponsive and has not provided sufficient answers. The congressman said the commission “seems unwilling to make any correction to try to prevent flooding next spring.”
“We have reached new levels of frustration with the IJC,” Brindisi said. “And I feel that there is no other way to get their attention and actually do the right thing, other than sending these letters and trying to empower the people along the shoreline who are going to be impacted by future flooding.”
Brindisi says the IJC could take action this winter to prevent flooding next year, but so far has failed to do so. The congressman said “first and foremost” in his mind is the health and safety of shoreline property owners, adding the weekly letters would “hopefully get some attention” and remind the IJC about the plight of lakeshore residents.
Though the lake has fallen about three feet in the last four months since its June highs, it remains about a half a foot higher than the same point in 2017. Brindisi maintains January 2020 lake levels must be 244 feet or less in order to prevent another round of flooding.
The IJC has continually said the main drivers of Lake Ontario water levels are inflows from Lake Erie and precipitation — not outflows through the Moses-Saunders Dam. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesperson Andrew Kornacki, who works closely with the IJC, reiterated that stance Wednesday and said the current IJC plan is to continue deviating from the safe navigation lim called for in Plan 2014 and maximize outflows.
“The main driver behind water levels is always going to be Mother Nature,” Kornacki said Wednesday, adding the lake is currently going through a typical seasonal decline but would almost certainly increase in the springtime. “We don’t know what the future is going to hold.”
Kornacki called the more than three-foot drop in Lake Ontario over the past four months “significant,” but said “across the board, those that have been impacted by the high water would like to see more” and the IJC shares that sentiment.
“The general consensus is to get as much water, even if it’s a couple extra centimeters, off the lake to provide as much relief as possible,” Kornacki said, noting that has to be done without negatively impacting downstream residents and interests. “But it’s a delicate balance.”
Addressed to IJC Canadian Section Chair Pierre Beland and U.S. Section Chair Jane Corwin, the letter sent by Brindisi states he is “deeply concerned” the IJC’s current course of action will again result in Lake Ontario flooding in 2020. Brindisi said the planned weekly letters would highlight current water levels and the plight of lakeshore property owners.
“We cannot see another year where residences, businesses and infrastructure across the upstate New York and Canadian shorelines are under water, hurting our economy and our communities,” Brindisi wrote, later adding if the IJC isn’t being responsive the commission “needs to hear these concerns each and every week.”
IJC spokesperson Frank Bevacqua said the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board (ILOSLRB), which manages the Moses-Saunders Dam and is overseen by the IJC, has proactively directed outflows to reduce high water impacts to the extent possible both upstream and downstream. Bevacqua said peak water levels in summer 2019 were about 14 inches lower than what would have occurred without water level regulation.
“Given the extreme conditions on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, the board has not followed Plan 2014 rule curves for the vast majority of the time since the plan was adopted,” Bevacqua said, adding instead the board has directed flows at a higher rate than is generally considered safe for navigation, carefully managed flows to prevent the formation of ice jams that could have blocked flows and “sustained the highest outflows on record throughout the summer of 2019.”
Outflows through the Moses-Saunders Dam will remain at 200 cubic meters per second above the flow rate considered safe for navigation for the remainder of the navigation season, according to Bevacqua, who said the board is also considering how to experiment with flows higher than those prescribed by Plan 2014 during the ice season without causing ice jams or other impacts.
"While the goal is to release as much as possible in order to reduce the risk of flooding in 2020, it is not possible to eliminate the risk of flooding next year," Bevacqua said.
Over the last several months, Brindisi and Rep. John Katko, R-Camillus, have continued to call for a review and possible fix to Plan 2014.
In June, Brindisi and Katko convened members of the IJC and local leaders from across Oswego County for a roundtable discussion, and the pair in August secured a study from the Government Accountability Office to review Plan 2014 — the water level management plan put in place in 2016.
Katko last weekend attended a meeting at Camp David and raised the issue of Plan 2014 with who he described as “high-level White House officials.” Katko said the meeting provided the opportunity to directly advocate the need to eliminate Plan 2014 to the Trump Administration.
“I’ve long pushed for a fix to address high water levels plaguing our shoreline communities, and was able to detail the current damage during this meeting,” Katko said in a statement. “Without action to rescind Plan 2014, our community will almost certainly face another season of high water levels, which homeowners cannot afford.”
In addition to the letter dated Oct. 23 —the first of Brindisi’s weekly letters — the congressman is asking shoreline property owners and others impacted by the flooding to share their stories with his office and the IJC.
Brindisi’s office set up a website and survey located at https://brindisi.house.gov/share-your-story-lake-ontario-flooding-and-ijc-inaction-2019 for individuals to share their stories and concerns, and the congressman invites anyone interested in joining the #FloodTheIJC campaign to fill out the survey.