SODUS — Just how high should Lake Ontario's water levels be?
It's an emotional debate raging among those who live on and use the lake.
Let the lake go up and down more, say environmentalists and outdoors sportsmen. The current levels have made the lake's 63,000 acres of surrounding wetlands unhealthy; wildlife, native plants and fish are suffering, they say. They favor a new plan being considered by a joint American/Canadian commission to let the lake rise and fall more.
Keep the lake stable, say fearful shoreline property owners, municipalities and some businesses. They scoff at the idea of putting "muskrats and cattails above property values." The new plan could result in unacceptable extremes, they say, including erosion from high water or dried-up dock slips and shorelines.
Decision time is near. A commission of American and Canadian officials could rule early this year.
"This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to restore the health of a great lake. It's in everyone's best interest to have a healthy lake," said Jim Howe, executive director of the Central and Western New York chapters of the Nature Conservancy.
Jack Steinkamp, of Sodus, founder of the Lake Ontario Riparian Alliance, a citizen's group opposed to the plan, is quick to note many have "no clue what an extra foot or lack of a foot means to the people living along the lake's shore or doing business in its marinas or harbors."
The debate concerns Plan 2014, which is currently before the International Joint Commission, a panel composed of representatives from the U.S. and Canada whose mission is to prevent and resolve conflicts over the shared use of waters on the countries' borders.
A six-year study on the lake's water level began in 2000 and ended in 2006. The study included more than 200 experts from both sides of the border and cost some $20 million, said Frank Bevacqua, a spokesman for the International Joint Commission.
Several proposals were forwarded, none were accepted. Plan 2014 was released this May. It added two inches to the upper range of what's occurring now, and an extra eight inches to the lower range, Bevacqua said.
In addition, the most current plan includes "triggers" that allow the IJC to take emergency action during high water or low water conditions. These were put in place to allay the concerns of shoreline property owners, Bevacqua said.
Lake Ontario was described earlier this year as the most "environmentally stressed" of the five Great Lakes, according to a study led by researchers at the University of Michigan.
The environmentalists, bolstered by support from outdoor sportsmen, say the critics exaggerate the negatives, noting Plan 2014 is long-overdue and needed. They concede there should be more financial aid and help available to those individual property owners, businesses and communities affected, but that Plan 2014 needs to be approved first.
Page 2 of 2 - When the lake's current water plan was put in effect back in the late 1950s, officials had no idea what its ecological impact would be, Howe said. Over the years, the absence of variable highs and lows ended up killing off certain native plant species in the wetlands, resulting in congested "cornfields" of cattails with little or no open water. Wildlife such as ducks, black terns and muskrats have decreased, and northern pike spawning areas have been disappearing.
Critics like Steinkamp, and many elected officials — particularly those representing counties along the lake's southern shore from Niagara to Oswego — point out Plan 2014 does not include any promises or built-in provisions for more federal or state aid for problems it might cause. They say the estimated $2.23 million amount in annual negative impacts projected by the plan is "grossly underestimated." They favor keeping the status quo.
A series of hearings and a public comment period for the plan started July 1 and ended Aug. 31. The commission is expected to reach its decision sometime in early 2014, at which time the plan will be handed over to the U.S. State Department and the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs.
New York State and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have stayed clear of the fray and not taken a stance on Plan 2014. The Canadian providence of Ontario has voiced its approval, but Quebec has remained mum at this point, Bevacqua said.