ALBANY, New York — The joint U.S. and Canadian agency that oversees management of the St. Lawrence Seaway and Lake Ontario released a report Tuesday recommending more natural variations of water levels to restore the health of shoreline wetlands.
The International Joint Commission plan — the culmination 14 years of scientific studies and often contentious public debate — seeks to balance the needs of shoreline property owners, commercial shipping, recreational boating, hydropower production and ecosystem health in controlling releases from the Moses-Saunders Dam in Cornwall, Ontario.
The "Plan 2014" recommendations take steps to restore natural ecosystems around the lake after 60 years of regulations that weighed business and property interests but ignored environmental issues. It would allow the lake's water level to rise a few inches higher, on average, in spring and fall.
Field work and analysis during the commission's study demonstrated that the current regulation plan has substantially degraded 64,000 acres of shoreline wetlands that are critical to filtering pollution and providing habitat to native amphibians, birds, mammals and fish.
The plan, which cost more than $20 million to develop, is subject to approval by the U.S. and Canadian governments, with no set timetable for implementation.
It's the final version of a plan announced last year and presented at public meetings where some of the lake's south shore property owners voiced opposition, saying its allowance for greater fluctuations in water levels would speed erosion and increase flooding risks.
In a conference call, commission member Dereth Glance said it is estimated that the plan will result in about a 13 percent overall increase in the costs of rebuilding, fortifying or maintaining shoreline erosion-control structures such as seawalls around the lake.
While there are likely to be costs involved in shoreline protection, Glance pointed out there are already expensive efforts underway to restore wetlands around Lake Ontario.
"The benefit of this plan is that you can restore the health of these wetlands substantially without any cost to taxpayers, and enhance the economics of everything from fishing to bird-watching to hunting."
The commission was established under the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty. It established criteria for managing flows from the Moses-Saunders Dam in 1956, including provisions to compress the natural range of water level fluctuations to benefit development in lakeside communities.