Environmental groups push bi-national commission to advance lake levels plan

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A coalition of environmental groups is calling on the International Joint Commission to move forward with its proposed Lake Ontario levels management plan.

The IJC, a bi-national commission that handles issues involving water bodies with shared US-Canadian borders, is meeting today and tomorrow in Washington, D.C. And the environmental groups are asking the commission to schedule public hearings on plan Bv7, the proposed lake levels management plan.

The coalition includes Citizens Campaign for the Environment, the Nature Conservancy, Audubon New York, and Save the River. The groups say they've collected 9,170 "expressions of support" — letters and petition signatures, essentially — for the plan. (The Nature Conservancy's website devoted to the plan is available here.)

The IJC has used the same lake levels management plan since 1963, according to its IJC website. But that plan never took the environment into consideration, and shoreline wetlands have suffered. It also doesn't take climate change, which will likely have its own impact on water levels, into consideration.

Many state environmental groups support the plan because it would restore natural variability to lake levels. They say that greater variability in water levels will restore lake-shore habitat and wetlands, and in particular it will encourage plant diversity. The plan also takes climate change into account.

The IJC has been developing a new Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence Seaway levels management plan for a decade. Several years ago, officials developed and presented several options, but opposition was so great that they went back to the drawing board. They came back with Bv7.

But the plan is controversial; it'd be virtually impossible for the IJC to draft a plan that satisfies all Lake Ontario interests. In addition to environmental groups, some businesses and business community representatives support the plan. They include Alcoa, which sees potential benefits to St. Lawrence River hydropower operations, and the Business Council of the State of New York.

The main opposition to the plan comes from property owners on Lake Ontario's southern shore, and the politicians who represent them. Some property owners say that the plan would increase erosion and periodic inundation, which would cause them to lose some of their property — a charge others deny. (Lake Ontario Riparian Alliance, an association of lakefront property owners, outlines its concerns on its website. It also has links to resolutions and letters outlining concerns or opposition from politicians and local governments.)

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