Great Lakes

Lake Ontario Water Levels and Plan 2014

By Maryanne Adams
June 13, 2017

Lately, there has been a fair amount of media coverage about the damage that high water levels have been causing to property on the southern shore of Lake Ontario.  Irate property owners have been requesting relief from their representatives and after Governor Cuomo visited affected areas, the state of New York allocated $22 million to help homeowners, towns, and businesses that were damaged by flooding. However, in spite of these relief programs, many shoreline residents would like the U.S. to withdraw from Plan 2014 because they feel that the plan caused their problems.

Withdrawing from Plan 2014 will not help because the real culprit is Mother Nature. The current high water levels are primarily due to very heavy precipitation in the Eastern Great Lakes region since late March and is not directly human caused. The recently adopted management Plan 2014 is NOT significantly contributing to the 33 inches above previous water levels. It is an unfortunate coincidence that a very rainy spring occurred at the same time that Plan 2014 came into effect.

Onondaga Audubon owns two lakeshore properties – Noyes Sanctuary and Derby Hill.  The erosion of the bluff at Derby Hill gives us a direct seat in the game. However, most bluff erosion is from rainfall not lake levels as water bleeds out of the bluffs. This has been going on since the glaciers departed and all we can do is keep moving the safety fence back.

In the short run, people, some wildlife, and the dunes will all take a hit, but all will be better off in the long run. We had hoped to see the return of nesting endangered Piping Plovers at Sandy Pond, but the high water has eliminated all the places where that might have occurred. On the other hand, the current high water is already providing noticeable restoration benefits to critical wetland ecosystems. Several species of wildlife are already receiving benefits and include American Bittern, various types of waterfowl, Black Tern and other marsh birds, and several species of fish, including northern pike. Since habitat is being enhanced, the benefits to wildlife will continue into the future.

It’s important to remember that all water bodies undergo natural fluctuations and these are critical to maintaining their ecological viability. The reduction of the range of these fluctuations over the last six decades has greatly damaged critical wetland ecosystems. Humans got used to the unnatural lack of fluctuation and continued to build homes in areas that were prone to flooding. In the long run, the benefits of allowing more natural fluctuations for birds, people, and all living with things far outweigh the damage that lakeshore residents are now experiencing. It’s only temporary and these same individuals will be thrilled when a low water cycle occurs.

I now refer you to the following press release which provides more information and support for Plan 2014:

 

Audubon New York • Citizens Campaign for the Environment • New York League of Conservation Voters • Save The River • The Nature Conservancy

 

PRESS RELEASE

For immediate release: May 31, 2017
For more information, contact:
Brian Smith, CCE, 716-831-3206, bsmith@citizenscampaign.org

Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River Water Levels: Follow the Science!
Groups praise Governor’s leadership to provide funding; decry scapegoating of Plan 2014

Buffalo, NY—Environmental organizations are calling for decision makers to seek science-based solutions to high water levels along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, and are pushing back against irresponsible and misleading claims that Plan 2014 is to blame.  All of the experts—from the International Joint Commission, to the Army Corps of Engineers, to a well-known critic of Plan 2014 that serves on the International Lake Ontario-St Lawrence River Board —agree that current conditions are due to heavy precipitation and snowmelt entering the lake and river, and not Plan 2014.

The groups are applauding Governor Cuomo and the NY Legislature for providing much needed resources and funding to assist the people, communities, and businesses impacted by the severe weather.  At the same time, they also encourage policymakers to continue to focus on appropriate solutions, and not scapegoat Plan 2014.

“We commend the Governor for his leadership to address recent flooding with much-needed funding for residents, municipalities, and businesses. These resources are critical to address the flooding caused by record precipitation entering the lake and river,” said Brian Smith, Associate Executive Director for Citizens Campaign for the Environment. “What we need now is continued support from the state, along with support from the federal government, to put us on a path forward that will allow our shoreline communities to become more resilient, reduce risk to people during these events, and move people and infrastructure out of harm’s way.

Many politicians, in an effort to avoid the real vulnerabilities of shoreline living, have ignored the science on lake levels for years, and their continued anti-Plan 2014 rhetoric is not unexpected.  Environmental organizations, however, were particularly concerned and disappointed with recent comments made in Greece by Governor Cuomo, essentially blaming the International Joint Commission for the problem.

“Throughout his time in office Governor Cuomo has demonstrated time after time that he makes decisions based on sound science and objective analysis.  Unfortunately, the Governor’s suggestion that the IJC is to blame for recent flooding is not at all supported by science.   Moving forward, we hope that the Governor will continue with his leadership to implement evidence-based solutions to the devastating impacts shoreline property owners are facing. Scapegoating Plan 2014 is not supported by science, nor does it help New Yorkers,” continued Smith.

“The solution to this year’s high water is not a return to a plan under which the same conditions have repeatedly occurred. Instead we need to use our resources and political will to assist those impacted now and ensure what we build takes Nature’s role and the reality of dynamic water bodies and shorelines into account,” said Lee Willbanks, Upper St. Lawrence Riverkeeper & Executive Director, Save The River.

“Plan 2014, is an environmentally sound and science-based approach for regulating Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River water levels and flows, which promotes the return of wetlands including habitat for threatened species like the Black Tern and Least Bittern,” said Mike Burger, Director of Conservation and Science at Audubon New York.  “Audubon New York continues to be fully supportive of Plan 2014 and would like to remind our New York representatives that this approach achieves a balance of benefits for all interests, in a cost effective and scientifically sound way. We encourage the newly announced funds to be used to further efforts to achieve a sustainable solution.”

“While it is expedient to blame Plan 2014 for the recent flooding caused by heavy rainfall and snowmelt, suggesting regulators return to outdated, unscientific water levels would only exacerbate the situation, said Marcia Bystryn, President of NYLCV. “ Plan 2014 is a well-researched and widely supported effort to undo decades of negative environmental consequences of tightly regulating Lake Ontario’s water levels and restore wildlife habitat for numerous species, including state and federally-designated endangered species. The Plan protects shoreline property, while increasing renewable hydropower electricity production. NYLCV is pleased that Governor Cuomo and the Legislature have responded quickly with relief to address this crisis, however, we are asking our leaders to focus on better management of Plan 2014 rather than misleading the public and eroding its confidence in the International Joint Commission.”

Plan 2014 went into effect on January 7, 2017 after over 10 years of scientific study and stakeholder input.  The new plan does a skillful job of balancing all of society’s needs – hydropower, shoreline protection along Lake Ontario and in Montreal, commercial shipping, outdoor recreation like boating and fishing, and the need for a healthy environment in Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.

This modern, balanced plan will restore up to 64,000 acres of wetlands along the lake and river, continue commercial shipping, rebound populations of fish and wildlife such as the Northern Pike and Black Tern, increase hydroelectric power production by $5.3 million annually, boost revenue from recreational activity along the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario by $9.1 million annually, and continue over 50 years of significant shoreline protection.

Volunteer to help Lake Ontario Piping Plovers

Once again, Onondaga Audubon in partnership with the Lake Ontario Piping Plover Working Group (includes Audubon New York, NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, Onondaga Audubon, SUNY ESF, and US Fish and Wildlife Service) is seeking volunteers to assist with the stewardship of Piping Plovers on the beaches of eastern Lake Ontario during the 2017 breeding season.

When
April-August. We welcome volunteers who can help out one day, but a commitment of multiples days is preferred. Starting in April, volunteers will go out once a week to check sites to see if Piping Plovers hav

Piping Plover

e returned.  Each visit takes about a half day. The greatest demand will be on busy weekends and sunny days during the summer months when volunteers will assist staff with monitoring and outreach.

Where
In the early spring, we scout all potential nesting sites including El Dorado Beach Preserve, Black Pond Wildlife Management Area, Sandy Island Beach State Park and Lakeview Wildlife Management Area because you never know where a plover might show up. By June, we focus on sites where pairs of plovers have been regularly observed and are likely to nest.

Background
Over the past few years, Piping Plovers have been observed at Sandy Island Beach State Park and Lakeview Wildlife Management Area and we are hoping they will return in 2017. In 2015 and 2016, they were observed nesting, which was the first time in over thirty years!  The Great Lakes population of the Piping Plover is federally endangered and most of the population breeds in Michigan.  Having Piping Plovers on Lake Ontario during the breeding season is incredibly exciting–every single individual Piping Plover is significant!

What to Expect
The role of the volunteer early in the breeding season is to search for birds and document where they are. If birds, and even more notable pairs, return, a volunteer’s role is to compliment the work of seasonal staff to monitor and encourage people and their pets to respect designated bird nesting areas, which are noted by signs and fencing. Volunteers may also assist DEC or State Park staff in setting up fencing and play a critical role in conservation by helping to ensure disturbance is at a minimum. Access to the sites varies by site and might involve a long walk on the beach or a canoe, kayak or boat. Volunteers need to be comfortable with and capable of these forms of transport. A full training will be provided on May 24th at Sandy Island Beach State Park.

Please email or call Jillian Liner at the number below if you are interested and want to learn more!

Jillian M Liner
Director of Bird Conservation
Audubon New York
c/o Cornell Lab of Ornithology
159 Sapsucker Woods Road
Ithaca, NY 14850
(607) 254-2437
jliner@audubon.org

Plan 2014

On December 8, 2016 the International Joint Commission (IJC) approved Plan 2014 — an agreement Audubon and our partners has been fighting to be adopted for years that provides for the sustainable management of water levels into Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.

Below is a statement from Erin Crotty, Executive Director of Audubon New York about the finalization of Plan 2014

“Audubon New York thanks the International Joint Commission (IJC) and the governments of U.S. and Canada for reaching a balanced agreement for the management of water levels in Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. Plan 2014’s sustainable water level management plan, represents a truly historic opportunity to incorporate the best available science to restore over 60,000 acres of wetland habitat for the benefit of birds and wildlife, including state and federally listed endangered species like the Black Tern and Piping Plover, while improving economic opportunities and shoreline resiliency in both New York and Canada.

The Great Lakes are a remarkable ecosystem that is essential to the economic, cultural, and natural heritage of the region, including New York. Over four million New Yorkers, and thirty million people nationwide, depend on the Great Lakes for their drinking water, recreation, health and overall quality of life. Recreational boating, shipping, fishing, hydropower production, and ecotourism on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River are important drivers of the respective regional economies. In addition, along the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River ecosystem, Audubon has identified twelve Important Bird Areas (IBAs) that provide critical nesting and stopover habitat to hundreds of thousands of birds each year, including many federally and state-listed threatened and endangered species.

The Plan 2014 water level regulations can restore this shared waterway vital to people and birds. Audubon New York looks forward to continuing to work with the U.S. and Canadian governments, our coalition partners, and the communities of Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River on the implementation of Plan 2014.”

Erin M. Crotty
Executive Director, Audubon New York
Vice President, National Audubon Society

Lake Ontario, July, 2013. In the wake of public commentary about Plan Bv7, the International Joint Commission (IJC) has issued a revised water management proposal for Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. Basically, the new plan, simply called Plan 2014, is very much like Bv7, with triggers for deviation from the plan when water levels reach designated highs or lows. This new plan has the intent of reducing some of the negative effects of extreme water levels on shoreline property and recreational boating while still providing some environmental benefits. It does not do as much to improve lakeshore ecosystems as the previous plan, but it is still better than what is currently in place. OAS will be submitting a letter to the IJC supporting Plan 2014, and Gerry Smith was physically present at the technical hearing held July 17 in Oswego. You can learn more about the plan and the dates and locations of hearings on the commission’s website: http://www.ijc.org/en_/losl

Lake Ontario Water Levels –
IJC Plan BV7

by Maryanne Adams, Conservation Chair

The International Joint Commission (IJC) was “established in 1909 to help Canada and the United States manage the waters shared by the two countries
in a cooperative manner” . Since the 1950s, the Moses-Saunders Dam
between Massena, NY and Cornwall, Ontario, has been
used to control the water levels of Lake Ontario and the St.
Lawrence Seaway in a way that stabilized extreme highs
and lows. Unfortunately, over the years, there has been a
negative impact on the environment, because, according
to Frank Bevacqua, spokesman for the commission,
“the current water regulation has left most wetlands
with a mono-culture of cattails, instead of a natural
diversity of plants” ). The current plan (Plan
1958DD), which tempered extreme high and low water
levels, has been in place for sixty years. A 12-year study
by the IJC of the effects that this plan has had on the Great
Lakes-St. Lawrence ecosystem has found measurable
negative environmental impacts. The “entire class of
coastal wetlands has declined by over 50 percent and been
replaced by dense stands of cattails”. In addition, Plan 1958DD water regulation
has resulted in the disappearance of just about all of the
muskrats that had lived in the coastal marshes of Lake
Ontario before the water level was regulated. According
to The Connecticut Post, when the water level in Lake
Ontario drops in winter, muskrats are stranded in their
lodges as access to underwater tunnels is cut off. Without
muskrats to chew channels through the thick growth of
cattails, there is less open water (needed for marsh-nesting
birds) and spawning pike have no pathways. Northern
Pike have declined by 70% and populations of Black Tern
by 80%.
An article entitled “International plan to govern Lake
Ontario levels” published in The Connecticut Post on
January 30, 2012 made everything sound so simple.
It states that the IJC “must balance many interests
that often conflict”. (We who live much closer to the
waters whose optimal levels are being debated could
interpret that phrase as an understatement.)
The Connecticut Post article summarizes the four
conflicting areas of interest as follows:
• Hydroelectric power generation that relies upon
predictable water flow in the St. Lawrence.
• Commercial shippers who want deep Seaway levels
to allow passage of ocean vessels.
• Lakeside landowners who want to minimize erosion
and thus prefer lower water levels with minimal
fluctuation.
• The ecosystem that benefits from a natural cycle of
seasonal highs and lows.
In order to begin to reverse the damage from the past 60
years of regulation and to restore the health and diversity
of lakeside marshlands, the IJC has proposed Plan BV7.
It “attempts to more closely follow natural patterns of
water levels and flows than the current regulation plan”
and “allows more variability in water levels from year to
year on Lake Ontario and the upper St. Lawrence River”. The following
figure illustrates how Plan BV7 compares to the current
plan and to unregulated water levels. If implemented, Plan
BV7 “would raise the monthly average Lake Ontario water
level by 6 centimeters (2.4 inches) in April, 3 centimeters
(1.2 inches) in June, and 5 cm (2 inches) in October using
water supplies of the 20th century. Unregulated water
levels would be significantly higher than the levels under
either plan”.
The downside of the plan from the point of view of some
is that residents and businesses will need to spend more
on the maintenance and improvement of their shoreline
protection structures if water levels will be higher.
Organizations like Save Our Sodus feel that the IJC has
not considered the economic impact of Plan BV7 in places
where residents and businesses will need to spend about
12% more to protect their shoreline properties.Supervisors in the towns of
Ontario, Williamson, Sodus, Huron, and Wolcott are also
concerned about the impact to the tax base if lake property
values decrease.
The Derby Hill Bird Observatory land that borders Lake
Ontario is a prime example of vulnerable lakeshore
property. For years the bluff has been whittled away
by wave action while groundwater seepage worked to
accelerate the erosion process from within. Plan BV7
won’t save our bluff, but it will repair some of the damage
that has been done to shoreline wetlands. In the long
run, improving the health of lake and river wetlands will
benefit all who live in the region. If habitat improves,
populations of native fish and wildlife will increase and
this will strengthen the recreational economy.
Beginning on May 15, the IJC will begin holding public
information sessions about Plan BV7. New York sessions
will take place in Massena, Olcott, Clayton, Hilton,
Oswego, and Williamson. Visit IJC.org for details about these events
and for information about submitting written comments
to the IJC. The next step will be the development of a
proposal, with formal public hearings. It is only after this
occurs that a decision about water level regulation will be
made.

MY VIEW
by Gerry Smith

In the article above, Conservation Chair
Maryanne Adams presents a balanced reasonable view
of why the OAS supports implementation of this plan
to manage Lake Ontario water levels. As one who has
been deeply involved in this issue for many years, I
would like to add a few thoughts. As the former senator
and Governor of Florida, Bob Graham remarked
about Everglades restoration “now is the time to act.”
Graham said his grandfather has been instrumental in
schemes to drain the Everglades while he was helping
restore them. Thus we learn over time what terrible
mistakes our species has made in managing our
environment and seek the wisdom to fix those we can.
The implementation of plan BV7 in Lake Ontario and
the St. Lawrence River represents an opportunity to
begin repairing the ecological mess that was made 55
years ago. BV 7 will not solve all problems instantly but
it is a start toward a better future.
In the public debate over this plan bear in mind:
• At one time the water levels on the lake fluctuated
up to 6.5 feet but were reduced to 4 feet by plan
1958-D.
• Lack of greater fluctuation has had catastrophic
ecological impacts of lake and river associated
wetlands.
• The proposed changes will allow for a few extended
high and low water periods in a century cycle.
• This cycle could have limited increased erosion at
times while reducing erosion at other times.
• As owners of an eroding drumlin on Lake Ontario
(Derby Hill) and other lakeshore (Noyes Sanctuary)
the OAS believes that any limited increased risk is
more than balanced out by gains toward healthier
ecosystems.
At age 63 this core baby boomer finds him most annoyed
by the whining of many shoreline property owners
regarding BV 7. Most of those landowners I meet range
in age from their mid-fifties to their 80s. They have
lived years on an artificial, badly managed reservoir
and wish no change even if it has benefits for them. I
can but wonder, noting the probable high and low water
periods, how many of these folks expect to be around
in half a century to witness 2-3 cycles. It is time to set
personal selfishness aside and think of the long-term
health of the system. On behalf of future generations,
I will be telling my federal and state representatives to
encourage IJC implementation of BV7 and I hope you
will, too.

Botulism in the Eastern Great Lakes –
Today’s Price for Yesterday’s Greed

By Gerry Smith

The post World War II period was a free wheeling development dream in which the federal government was a primary player. Unbridled enthusiasm for “progress “brought the interstate system with the Thruway running through the heart of Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge. Incomprehensible to me is the fact, relayed by the late Dr. Harold H Axtell that the state received at total of FIVE letters of complaint about such an outrageous assault on natural values. In such a heady time it is little wonder that progress projects, such as the navigation and power alterations along the St. Lawrence River, flew through Congress as necessary for the security of the nation.

Today’ any such efforts would be subject to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). It is hard to believe that the “seaway” project with its environmental and human costs would fly today. The destruction, by submersion, of several villages and other human habitation, primarily in Canada, would likely be met with far less acquiescence than in the mid -1950s. A mere two decades after the passage of NEPA opposition on both sides of the border torpedoed plans by the US Army corps of engineers to make navigation on the river year round. One could hope the playing fields have now changed for the better.

Unfortunately these mega-projects of the recent past have cost us dearly ecologically while the shipping companies raked in the profits. Scientists predicted decades ago that the introduction of invasive species Into the Great Lakes would occur because of improper management of ships ballast water. Even though this was obvious these companies made no changes until forced by regulations since it might cost them a few dollars and harm their profit margin. Only recently have legislators and agencies developed regulations to control introduction of aquatic invasive species. While these efforts are highly desirable and badly needed, to prevent future invasions, it’s a bit like the proverbial locking the barn door after the horse is stolen. Given the problems caused by the navigation and power interests the sins of the fathers (almost all were male), who altered this natural system in the name of progress, are coming home to roost.

During this century what was once an occasional problems for birds along Lake Ontario and Lake Erie has become very serious. That problem is Type E botulism outbreaks, which has killed thousands to tens of thousands of fish eating birds. While the botulism organism is native the primary method of transmission via zebra mussels to round goby to fish eating bird relays on two invaders. The end result of this short food chain seems to be intense toxicity impacting many species. Some waterbirds and waterfowl appear more sensitive than others. In addition the intensity and timing of outbreaks varies apparently largely due to fluctuation in annual weather conditions.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has conducted some monitoring in past years but consistency is lacking. Information that is available suggests that severe mortality occurs during high outbreak years for certain species.

dead-common-loon-fairhaven-wr

Photo by William Roberts

Common Loon, Long-tailed Duck and Caspian Tern are often among the hardest hit species. As many as ten to fifteen thousand or more Common Loons may have perished on the Eastern Great Lakes in the last decade. These loons originate from the large Canadian and Alaskan Boreal Forest population where their numbers are not monitored. Even though this population is quite large such losses, to a very slowly reproducing long-lived species, must be having adverse population impacts. Frankly the loss of so many of these magnificent creatures because of us makes my stomach churn.

A decade plus is a relatively short time to assess impacts in nature even during the Anthropocene climate change era. . There is a clear need for more intensive monitoring of the botulism situation in the lower lakes and its impact on all species. NYSDEC seems reluctant to spend resources on this as they feel no management action will result. . Well that may be true and staff is limited but this situation needs more attention than it’s getting. For one thing we need to know more about what’s dying and where. Although waterbirds die on the lakes from a variety of causes large numbers of birds found dead in short stretches of beach from mid- summer to early winter are likely victims of type E. Sick and Dying birds often exhibit “limber neck” as if their head is too heavy to hold up. Botulism is primarily active between late June and November. Fresh dead birds at other seasons are likely from other causes. Perhaps resources could be re-directed from Young Forest Initiative to this more pressing need. Given the status of forests in counties bordering the Great Lakes these staff resources would be better spent managing such a project. If staff resources were applied a cooperative citizen science based combined effort would be possible

Such an effort could address this difficult situation particularly in years with heavy mortality. At such times secondary poisoning of eagles and other species that scavenge carcasses is a high probability. Ideally these carcasses would be removed and made unavailable to scavengers. Such a combined government/ private partnership could gather useful data while reducing the likelihood of secondary poisoning through removal. Good volunteer training and DECs legal authority would make such a project feasible. All that is required is the commitment of necessary resources and the will to make it happen.

So assuming that for the moment there are no practical options for carcass removal without large scale DEC led efforts, what can one do to make a contribution? Well if you are out walking a Great Lakes beach and find a dead waterbird or waterfowl, take three or so photos with your cell phone camera from as many angles as possible. Email me these photos with time and date stamp including the location as best as you can determine it to the address below. I will reply and identity the creature, if needed, as best I can. We will start a database of these photos that may have future value and can be developed with little extra effort.

It is sad that the best we can do is a post mortem on these losses. These birds, and indirectly those of us who enjoy their presence, are paying the long- term freight for the shippers’ greed and neglect. The “St Lawrence Seaway” development is our regions equivalent of attempts to drain the Florida Everglades. All this stupidity was justified by economic progress and Cold War hysteria during the “family” fifties, which leaves us with the current mess. Hopefully such a regrettable mega project would not fly now. But I wonder as I see elements of the ghosts of the mid twentieth century in the arguments for ” progress “presented by the advocates of large-scale poorly considered energy development projects in the twenty first century.