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N-O legislators go to DC to fight Lake Ontario plan

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 15 July 2015 at 12:00 am

File photo by Tom Rivers – Lake Ontario splashes against the south shore in this photo from last August, taken at the shores of the Golden Hill State Park in Barker.

Two county legislators travelled to Washington, D.C. last week to meet with federal officials and argue against a new plan for regulating the water levels in Lake Ontario.

It’s unusual for county legislators from Orleans and Niagara counties to travel to the nation’s capital on official county business. But for Lynne Johnson of Orleans County and David Godfrey of Niagara, the issue demands every effort from the southshore counties that stand to lose valuable real estate and have fishing and tourism industries effected.

“We wanted to drive our point home that this will be devastating to the lakeshore,” Johnson said.

She and Godfrey represented the Niagara-Orleans Regional Alliance. They met with Department of State officials, as well as staff for U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand. The two county legislators also met directly with U.S. Rep. Chris Collins, who arranged for a meeting with the Department of State.

The International Joint Commission regulates the lake water levels. It includes representation from both the U.S. and Canadian governments. The IJC has endorsed a plan that could lead to bigger fluctuations in lake levels. Many southshore county leaders fear higher water will erode private property and lower levels will leave marinas too shallow for boaters, hurting the fishing and recreational industries.

Johnson and Godgrey said they were armed with facts about the potential harm of the IJC plan. The six southshore counties from Niagara to Oswego have 10,025 parcels of lakefront land with a total assessed value of $3.7 billion. If they suffer a 10 percent loss, those communities would lose $370 million in value.

That difference would be spread to other property owners in the counties, raising their taxes, Johnson said.

“Everyone will suffer if we continue to take away properties on the lakeshore,” Godfrey said. “If the assessments are dropped because of this, we have to redistribute it to the other property owners in the county.”

The southshore fishing industry also generates about $100 million in economic impact annually. If that industry suffers, resulting in fewer sales tax and other revenue, that impact will have to be made up from other sources, Godfrey said.

He worries a higher lake will also swell inland streams, leading to more damage for those property owners.

A higher lake could also stir up radioactive waste in the town of Porter, Godfrey said. Radioactive waste material is buried near the shore with three feeder streams nearby, he said.

“If the lake levels fluctuate it will increase the draw and could flush it into the lake,” Godfrey said. “That’s very concerning to us.”

Collins spoke against the IJC plan during a news conference at Oak Orchard Harbor on July 2. He is working out another meeting in Washington with IJC and Department of State officials, Johnson said.

“On the heels of what I heard from local legislators and residents at last week’s press conference, it is clear this plan is not in the best interest of homeowners and other stakeholders along the Lake Ontario shoreline,” Collins said in a statement. “I am glad we had the opportunity to voice our concerns to the State Department, which is currently undergoing an interagency review of the IJC’s proposal. I remain committed to working with my colleagues in state and local government against its implementation.”

Collins and the county legislators say the plan goes against a binational treaty for the water levels that says no side of the lake should bear a “disproportional” harm from the water levels.

Johnson and Godfrey would like the IJC to continue the existing lake level management plan which dates back to the 1958.

“Our hope is in the end this goes nowhere,” she said about the new IJC plan. “We will continue to drive a nail into the coffin.”