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Battle over water levels on Lake Ontario may be nearing an end; IJC to hold one of its final public hearings in Clayton Wednesday

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It’s been a long, drawn-out battle between the north and south shore communities of the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River region. But the fight over water levels is nearing an end as the binational entity that controls the lake and river is now just months away from the planned adoption of what it calls a flexible and, more importantly, “balanced” management plan.

Waterfront property owners on the southern part of Lake Ontario, however, are not convinced the International Joint Commission’s “environmentally-friendly plan, BV7” works in their best interest.

In general, the plan — widely praised by upper lake residents and Thousand Islands communities for its boating and wetland-friendly features — is considered by cottage owners in Rochester, Sodus Bay and even up in Pulaski as a “nightmare” scenario is bound to wreak havoc on their expensive shoreline properties.

“Erosion has already been eating away our waterfront properties. It’s a nightmare,” said James Jerome, a Sandy Pond cottage owner since the 1960s. “And it’s just troublesome because they are talking about raising the water under a new plan. It would just kill us down here.”

Because of high water surges, Mr. Jerome already has lost a couple of hundred feet of beach.

“We’ve already moved our cottage twice. There’s no more room here,” he said. “The government is stealing our land. Heavily-taxed shoreline property owners are being forced to pay more to maintain their properties.”

Mr. Jerome and his neighbors argue that BV7 is based on “dumb science” and that nothing good can come by suddenly changing the rules after people have bought and built properties for half a century under the existing set of water regulations.

“People build their own places under one set of rules and now they are changing the rules? I think there is no amount of mitigation that can save our properties,” he said. “They tried to ram this down our throats once already.”

Another Sandy Pond cottage owner, David Pierson, Binghamton, said recreational boaters and St. Lawrence River cottage owners in support of BV7 for its promises of higher water spring through fall “should be careful what they wish for” as 1973 flood levels are allowed under the new plan.

“They totally screwed it up,” he said. “They shouldn’t pass the plan because of high water. Why do we need water over 246 feet? If the lake eats your property, you can’t get it back.”

And BV7 is not all about higher water levels, he said, as it allows for much lower water levels — thus riskier boating conditions in the Thousand Islands — as well.

But a veteran researcher of the Great Lakes has a different view, and goes as far as saying BV7 is the “best plan” that south shore cottage owners can wish for.

Douglas A. Wilcox, a professor of wetland science at SUNY Brockport who has studied the Great Lakes for 30 years, explains that the lower low-water limit under BV7 allows for beach building that the current 1958-DD plan — which keeps the water levels steady within a four-foot range — lacked.

If lake levels are allowed to drop as they did in Lake Michigan in the late-1990s, cottage owners on Lake Ontario might also see several yards of beach created on their shorelines.

IJC’s BV7 study on shoreline impact had its focus on potential erosion risks – thus projecting an additional $3 million-per-year shore protection cost to coastal residents – but did not take into consideration the benefits shoreline rebuilding would bring these people given enough time.

“They did not evaluate the shoreline revitalization part; the firm didn’t know about that,” he said. “1958-DD was, in part, responsible for their loss of beach. The fact of the matter is, the low lake level is the only friend they have. BV7 is the best plan they can hope for.”

Where the two plans differs the most — 1958-DD vs. BV7 — is during low water supply years.

Both plans have “cut off points,” or upper and lower target levels under an Order of Approval, but while 1958-DD holds water when supply is low; BV7 lets it go low to a greater extent.

Over the years, the lack of low levels under 1958-DD has eliminated 64 acres of wetlands along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, Mr. Wilcox said.

By mimicking the natural rise and fall of the lake and river, IJC’s proposed Plan BV7 is expected to help reverse the damage done to the region’s ecosystem with the construction of the Moses-Saunders hydroelectric dam in Massena.

The IJC is anticipating a 40 percent increase in Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River-area wetland meadows — a highly diverse plant community and vital habitat for fish and wildlife — under BV7, although nobody knows how long that will take.

After years of research and collecting feedback from various interest groups in both U.S. and Canada, the IJC presented BV7 earlier this year as a “balanced approach” that will benefit the region’s environment while minimizing the impact to shoreline property owners and providing “dependable flow” for hydropower and adequate water for shipping.

For recreational boating, BV7 would overall allow for longer boating seasons but there will be years where boating will be difficult because of the “lower lows.”

Despite the IJC’s initial projections of a combined annual loss of $630,000 for the region’s recreational boating industry due to these potential low supply years, boaters seem to back BV7 for its higher spring and fall levels and possibly higher summer levels.

IJC’s analysis of a century-worth of water level data shows that the BV7 plan would have allowed for a high of 75.74 meters — or about 248.5 feet — some 2.4 inches higher than that allowed under 1958-DD, but more than a foot lower than what unregulated conditions could bring.

But in some years, the lowest summertime peak could be as low as 244.09 feet, when 244.4 feet is generally considered as a “concern level” for boating.

The lake and river’s annual cycle of rising and dropping water levels start with low winter levels with a typical peak in early June.

Including the Clayton public hearing Wednesday, there are only a handful of formal BV7 hearings left but IJC is not asking people to speak up now or forever hold their peace.

Instead, the IJC’s new approach includes an “adaptive management strategy,” which allows it to refine the plan based on changes in the region’s environment, shore properties, boating, lower-St. Lawrence River conditions and water levels supply forecast.

The plan is quite extensive and the IJC has been making data and projections available on its website.

Also, IJC officials and researchers are inviting lake and river community members to ask questions and provide feedback at public hearings.

n On Tuesday, IJC representatives will visit St. Lawrence County at 7 p.m. at Louisville Volunteer Fire Department, 14818 Route 37, Massena.

n Wednesday, same time, the tour hits Jefferson County at the Clayton Opera House, 405 Riverside Drive, village of Clayton.

n Thursday, also starting at the same time, there will be another hearing in Oswego at the Campus Center Auditorium, SUNY Oswego, 7060 Route 104.

IJC will gather public input until June 15 and then draft a proposal, which will include a revised order of approval, regulation plan, adaptive management plan and governance structure.

Officials have said a decision could be made toward the end of this year or early in 2013.

ON THE NET

International Joint Commission: www.ijc.org/loslr

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