Little agreement on lake level plan

Posted in the Finger Lakes Times, May 17, 2015, by Jim Miller

Both sides in the debate over Plan 2014 say they value the environment. Beyond that, they agree on little if anything about the controversial proposal for regulatingLake Ontario’s water levels.

That dissonance is on display every time the issue flares up, as it did again last week. One side predicts economic disaster, the other economic growth. One side predicts flooding, the other says it won’t happen.

Homeowners worry about their properties, businesses about their livelihoods. Plan proponents want to restore wetlands and help the environment. Both sides, in other words, sound like the good guys even if the facts they cite seem irreconcilable.

Last week, plan opponents took their case to theWashington, D.C., office of Rep. John Katko, R-24 ofSyracuse, whose 2014 election platform included opposition to the plan. Jim Hoffman, chairman of the Wayne County Board of Supervisors; Wolcott Supervisor Kim Park; Sodus Supervisor Steve LeRoy; Huron Supervisor Laurie Crane; and Sodus Point Mayor Chris Tertinek shared their concerns with representatives from the State Department and the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

“It was my pleasure to facilitate this important meeting to elevate the discussion of Plan 2014,” Katko said afterward. “While I recognize the value of preserving our natural resources and supporting conservation measures, it is critical that we have a full and open dialogue on the potential impact the [plan] could have on the Wayne County shoreline, as well as local tourism, recreation, business and agriculture.”

Among other concerns, opponents say the plan would cause more frequent changes in the lake’s water level, damaging its southern shoreline, and increase the maximum water level by 2.4 inches.

As noted, proponents disagree. They say Plan 2014 would prevent extreme high and low water, restore plant and animal diversity and pump as much as $9 million a year into local economies through increased recreation opportunities.

It’s almost like the two sides are talking about two different plans.

Assuming the plan goes into effect, only time will tell who had it right. In the meantime, some plan opponents are asking for a bit of insurance. They want flood compensation built into Plan 2014.

True, lakeshore residents chose to live in low-lying areas, but they did so under the old arrangements. If the new arrangements do not cause flooding, then no one will need help. If they do, those residents can argue pretty compellingly that basic fairness demands they receive some compensation for their losses.

It would be like buying a home near a dam and then finding out the owner planned to release water from the reservoir, causing floods. You’d naturally blame the dam’s owner, object to the plan and seek compensation if it went forward.

It seems impossible that reputable groups like Audubon New York and the Nature Conservancy — both among Plan 2014’s backers — want to destroy lakefront property, or that they believe it will happen.

However, a visit to a low-lying village like Sodus Point makes residents’ concerns seem plausible. Homes there sit so close to the water that it’s easy to understand why any proposed change in lake levels might make their owners nervous, all assurances aside.

Thus, the desire to ensure that someone will protect them if their fears materialize.

Assuming some kind of compensation plan were put in place, the difficulty would be proving whether a given flood was the result of Plan 2014 or would have occurred anyway.

The way this debate has been going, you can bet that plan opponents and plan proponents would come up with different answers.