In the spring of 2017, mere months after the outflow regulations known as Plan 2014 went into effect, extremely wet conditions across the Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River basins caused water levels to rise to record heights over the course of a few weeks. Severe flooding struck the shoreline of both Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, impacting many shoreline residents and businesspeople. High water also caused major difficulties for Indigenous Nations, boaters, commercial shippers, farmers and other interests.
Flood waters returned in the spring of 2019 with water levels breaking the records set just two years earlier, disrupting commercial navigation, damaging shorelines yet again, and harming most, if not all, water uses and interests. The period from late May through the beginning of August 2019 was the worst extended period of high water since record-keeping began more than a century ago. Governments, insurers and private parties spent hundreds of millions of dollars on recovery and resilience work after the two floods. The lives and livelihoods of thousands of people and the operations of many businesses, farms and local governments were disrupted for weeks and months. Some angry parties blamed Plan 2014 for the damaging high water, though technical reviews showed that without the infrastructure and operations under Plan 2014 water levels would have been higher. Others pointed fingers at the appointed International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board (Board) that can deviate from the rules of Plan 2014 when levels are extreme. A few claimed the Board unfairly deviated too much to help one interest or not enough to help another.
The Board employed several strategies to try and balance the interests of different sectors of the lake-river system between 2017 and 2020, but no regulation of outflows can prevent flooding when the events are so extreme. Members believe that the decisions they made with the information they had available at the time were reasonable and warranted. However, in the wake of those two high-water episodes, Board members have said they could use more information on the incremental impacts to interests and regions of the deviations they considered, particularly information that can inform decisions at the pace with which they need to be made. They asked for more insight and confidence in the potential consequences of their actions. The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management (GLAM) Committee, which is conducting a two phased expedited review of Plan 2014, has been working to give the Board what it asked for.
As detailed in this Phase 1 report, the GLAM Committee has produced an innovative Decision Support Tool (DST) designed to give the Board objective information about deviation outcomes. The tool provides broad-based metrics and up-close data about the potential impacts of deviation decisions across interest groups and geographic areas. The DST will not give the Board the power to eliminate extreme high or low water, nor will it make decisions for the Board. The Board will continue to have only a modest ability to influence water levels. Nevertheless, the DST will inform the Board so that it better understands the impacts and uncertainties of deviation options, and thus enables them to make effective decisions while maintaining their ability to be as fair and impartial as possible within the context of the Boundary Waters Treaty (https://www.ijc.org/en/who/mission/bwt) and 2016 Supplementary Order of Approval (https://ijc.org/en/68a).