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High Flooding On Lake Ontario And St. Lawrence River


Record flooding again on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River just two years after devastating floods in New York and Canada caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. Now, this is after an updated plan to try to manage the waterway. It's a plan critics say has actually made flooding worse. North Country Public Radio's Emily Russell reports.

EMILY RUSSELL, BYLINE: Kathleen Hilborne loves the St. Lawrence River. It's peaceful, she says, which is why she and her husband were really eager to get a place of their own.

KATHLEEN HILBORNE: We had been looking for a camp on the St. Lawrence for probably 10 to 15 years. And, you know, we just thought we found the perfect spot.

RUSSELL: Right in Ogdensburg, a small city on New York's border with Canada.

HILBORNE: And everything was going great until 2017.

RUSSELL: That is when water levels on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River surged. The Hilborne's cottage was completely flooded. After that, her family got a $15,000 grant from New York state to build a long seawall to protect the place.

HILBORNE: Actually, the contractor just finished it in September or October. We never even got to use it. It's gone. Everything is gone. It's worse than it was in 2017.

RUSSELL: Hilborne's cottage is surrounded by a wall of white sandbags. Her boat house is under more than a foot of water, and her front lawn has completely washed away.

HILBORNE: I mean, look at this. This is like a sandy beach.

RUSSELL: And this used to be grass.

HILBORNE: This was all grass.

RUSSELL: There are record-high water levels across the Great Lakes. And, while this has been one of the wettest springs, a lot of people here are not blaming the weather. Instead, they're taking it out on the International Joint Commission. The IJC is made up of three commissioners from Canada and three from the U.S. They're tasked with managing waterways all along the border. At the beginning of 2017, just months before flooding began, the IJC had adopted a new plan to manage water levels on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. It would balance the needs of shore owners while benefiting wildlife and restoring wetlands. But critics say it's done more harm than good.


ANDREW CUOMO: The IJC's job is to manage the water flow in the Great Lakes.

RUSSELL: That's New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. He spoke during a recent trip to flooded communities along Lake Ontario.


CUOMO: By definition, when you have flooding, they have failed to manage the water flow.

RUSSELL: There's been record snow and rainfall in the Great Lakes Basin this year. That water has to go somewhere, and that somewhere is the St. Lawrence River. IJC spokesman Frank Bevacqua says the commission has done all it can to reduce the impact of flooding.

FRANK BEVACQUA: The obvious cause for the flooding is that there's been too much water coming into the system.

RUSSELL: Bevacqua says they even released more water from a massive dam than they normally would in hopes of bringing levels down on the lake and the river.

BEVACQUA: There's a tremendous amount of public concern, and I think commissioners want to make sure that no stone is left unturned.

RUSSELL: That is welcome news for Kathleen Hilborne. She, like a lot of the shore owners here, still blames the IJC.

HILBORNE: My father was on the river his whole life. This has never happened. My husband's family had a camp on the river. This never happened.

RUSSELL: If the IJC decides to change its management plan, it would need approval by both the American and Canadian governments. Meanwhile, the water levels on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River are expected to go down in the coming weeks but likely won't return to normal until later this year.

For NPR News, I'm Emily Russell.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAURA VEIRS SONG, "FIRE SNAKES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Russell