Following 16 years and $20 million in studies, the United States and Canada, via the International Joint Commission, have established a new strategy for regulating Lake Ontario water levels, with the focus on rebuilding wetlands to benefit fish and wildlife. Not surprisingly, "sportsmen were among the loudest proponents of Plan 2014," the Syracuse Post-Standard said in an editorial endorsing the action.
Essentially, the plan calls for a return to more natural highs and lows that the lake experienced before the Moses-Saunders Dam was built on the St. Lawrence River in 1958. From year to year, the lake could fluctuate as much as 8 feet.
"It is this process that maintains the diversity of wetland plant communities, and also the diversity of habitat for a whole variety of fish and wildlife species," said Doug Wilcox of the College at Brockport, State University of New York.
With the dam in place, the goal was to moderate levels to facilitate shipping and hydropower, with shoreline property owners also benefiting from more stable water. But it had unintended consequences.
Many native plants among the fishery's 64,000 acres of coastal wetlands died, and invasive cattails flourished. The lake lost both habitat and nutrient filters that enhanced water quality. Fish and wildlife populations declined.
Proponents of the plan insist that it will allow for a nature-based fluctuation without materially changing the current range of high and low water. In doing so, it will restore fish and wildlife populations, which will boost outdoor recreation, including fishing, boating, and ecotourism. At the same time, they say, it also will increase hydropower production and aid the shipping industry.
Opponents, meanwhile, mostly are home owners, especially on the south shore, who fear greater fluctuation will damage or destroy properties.
IJC Chair Lana Pollack said that members understand such concerns, but believes that Plan 2014 is the best possible compromise.
"It's hard to give 100 percent to any particular interest when there are competing interests involved," she said.