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A conversation about Lake Ontario flooding with an engineer reviewing Plan 2014

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ROCHESTER, NY (WROC) – Below is a phone call between James Gilbert and Bernie Gigas, part of a group that is helping review Plan 2014.

JAMES: TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THIS REVIEW BOARD THAT YOU ARE A PART OF?

BERNIE: The public advisory group, it’s actually not a board, it’s a public advisory group. It has no decision-making authority whatsoever. It was never advertised as having any decision-making authority. So, it’s the IJC’s attempt to get public input, if you will, from the various stakeholders into a Plan 2014 review. Plan 2014 has a fifteen-year timeline during which it is to be reviewed. They are expediting that based on what happened in ‘17 and ‘19. They’re just looking for input from the public.  

There are sixteen people in the group right now stretching from Buffalo all the way through Lac Saint Pierre, which is just downstream from Montreal. We just started having meetings, we’ve had two meetings so far, very polite, very well organized. We are still in the early stages, so there’s not a whole lot to talk about in terms of what have we discussed, what progress we are making, we are not there yet. It’s a slow process, as you can imagine. 

JAMES: HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED? 

BERNIE: My wife and I moved up to Lake Ontario on Edgemere Drive in 2016, June 30th. Then Plan 2014 went through, there was a lot of consternation about that before it even went into effect. 2017 happens and it starts flooding, we get concerned, but primarily you’re really worried about taking care of your own house, and essentially reacting to ‘what did I get myself into?’  

But once 2017 then finished and the water went back down you kind of racked it off as a 1 in 20-year event, that’s pretty normal, everybody expects that, not a big deal, we survived this, lets sell the other house and stay here permanently. That was our long-term plan. Then 2019 happened and that’s when I said, you know what, I’m going to do some reading. 

…So I went on the IJC’s website and I lifted 6500 data points manually off their website, and the reason I did that is because I figured if I wrote them an email I wouldn’t get a response, or they wouldn’t take me seriously so I just pulled it manually off their web page and started building a model around it. So I did that and found some things in there that I thought were worth talking about with the Army Corps of Engineers and the IJC, so I kind of invited myself to a meeting, and gave them a preview of what I was going to be talking about and they had some pretty senior technical people there. That meeting went very well. I have presented as a part of grassroots lakeshore area organizations to probably 3000 people over the last year and had very technical conversations with the folks at the IJC and the board. I have visited Cornwall, I was invited up there for a meeting and apparently have established a reputation that I’m reasonable and technically somewhat accurate, so I got nominated to be a part of this group, which I’m very happy to do. 

 JAMES: WHAT’S YOUR BACKGROUND? 

BERNIE: Education in chemical engineering, Masters in mechanical engineering, New York professional engineer, I’ve focused my entire life on fluid dynamics. 

JAMES: UPSTREAM, [LAKE] HURON, MICHIGAN, AND SUPERIOR ARE ALL VERY HIGH. HAVE YOU DONE ANY RESEARCH ON HOW THOSE MAY IMPACT US GOING INTO THE FUTURE? 

BERNIE: That’s the elephant in the room. The water from Superior goes into Michigan-Huron, Michigan-Huron goes into Erie, Erie goes into Ontario. The flow out of Lake Superior is roughly 2,600 cubic meters per second. The flow out of Michigan-Huron is roughly 7,000 cubic meters per second. The flow out of Erie is roughly 8,000 cubic meters per second in round numbers. If you raise the Upper Great Lakes, more water flows out, because they’re not controlled…Their level is high, it’s coming this way. That’s going to take a couple of years of dry weather. We are looking at high inflow from Lake Erie, reasonably, for the next two years. 

JAMES: SO, 2021, WHO KNOWS, WE COULD SWING INTO A HIGH [WATER] YEAR. 

BERNIE: It really depends on the Ottawa River. Which is one of those, “What does the Ottawa River have to do with any of this?” Rob Caldwell has a really great way of looking at this. Look, you can have high inflow from Lake Erie, or you can have high flow on the Ottawa River, and everybody is fine, but you can’t have both. When you have wet conditions on the upper Great Lakes, and wet conditions in April when the Ottawa River really lets go. If you ever look at the Ottawa River numbers, that flow rate goes from about 1,500 to a high of about 9,500 cubic meters per second, every year. The flow is actually the same at one point. When that happens, the Ottawa River hits just before Montreal, and when that happens the way the plan is written, there are reasonable reasons for doing this, you dial back the outflow out of Lake Ontario, so you don’t completely inundate Montreal. 

So, the real critical piece here is if we’re going to have high inflow from Lake Erie for the next couple years, which we will, we’ll be [watching for] another freshet from a spring melt into the Ottawa River like we had in ‘17 and ‘19. That’s what really causes the flood.  

JAMES: ANALYZING PLAN 2014 AND HOW IT PERFORMED OVER THE PAST THREE YEARS, HOW WOULD YOU COMPARE THAT TO, LET’S SAY, IT NEVER EXISTED AND WE STILL HAD [THE OLD PLAN] 1958 DD, WOULD WE STILL HAVE HAD FLOODING IN 2017 AND 2019? 

BERNIE: Yes. But it could have been three inches lower. By the way, my house is right on Lake Ontario so I’ve got some skin in this game. The answer of, if we just went back to Plan 58D, or DD we’d be fine, is not well informed. 

JAMES: WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE DONE WITH PLAN 2014? 

BERNIE: The inherent concept behind this is that everybody benefits from the dam. And that’s kind of a counter intuitive aspect as well, right? How can you have a dam that lowers the water? A dam stops water, therefore if you have a dam the water must be higher. That’s true if you only have the dam, but they dug out the seaway, so the ability to get more water out is vastly increased. There is good science behind that.  

…Now that you have this dam, for shipping, for downstream and upstream, and power generation, how do you share the benefit? Plan 2014 is written in such a way that a couple of interests draw higher benefit from it than upstream riparians and that’s both on the lake and on the river. Unless that’s balanced, not everybody feels the same pain.  

The measuring point at Montreal is like Saint Louis, it’s just before Montreal. It has a hard-upper limit of “Thou shalt not increase the water level above this limit, period, ever” independent of how hard the Ottawa River flows. So if the Ottawa River sets yet another record, the people that suffer from that are not from Montreal, the people that suffer from that are the people from Lake Ontario. While I agree that having a shared pain is reasonable, the way the plan operates right now, the lion’s share of the pain is suffered by the riparians on Lake Ontario, the upper St. Lawrence, at the benefit of the folks downstream. Shipping has a similar argument.  

What I have been looking for, particularly in this first round, is to balance that. This first review is to take a look at the deviations that the IJC can give to the regulation board, the International Lake Ontario St. Lawrence River Board, who actually controls the outflow from the dam, or sets the outflow. They get deviation authority under certain conditions. Those deviations are not pre-defined. Those deviations are completely discretionary and what I’m hoping to achieve is to get a rule set around deviations that’s going to make everybody equally unhappy. There’s no way, given the amount of water we had in ‘17 and ‘19, there is no solution with current infrastructure to make everybody happy. [It] cannot be done. The best think you can do is make sure you have a solution that makes everybody equally unhappy. 

JAMES: LET’S SAY, IN 2030, EVERYTHING IS AVERAGE. ALL THE LAKES ARE CLOSE TO AVERAGE, YOU’RE TOTALLY OKAY WITH PLAN 2014, LETTING THE COMPUTER JUST RUN THE SYSTEM? 

BERNIE: Let’s take a look at 2018. 2018 was effectively a year where Plan 2014 was on autopilot. I don’t really have an objection; I can’t think of anything we were doing where more interference would have benefitted. So, Plan 2014 was specifically developed to keep the opinions of individual interests out of the equation. 

 I’ve had conversations with former representatives on the control board at the time, and what these guys said was ‘look, every meeting was about essentially hand written and arm wrestling over deviations. We went from deviation to deviation to deviation. We weren’t really running the plan.’ So there was a whole bunch of stuff that was learned, so they tried to incorporate all of that into Plan 2014. …Is any plan perfect? No. Do I think that you could ever develop a plan where you don’t need human oversight and intervention? Absolutely not. We’re not that smart, but I think you can do better, and when you have a requirement for deviation, it shouldn’t be up to 12 people that are fundamentally non-technical. It shouldn’t be up to 12 non-technical people to make a decision on what’s best. 

I think that those deviations, directionally, should be defined. If this happens, do that. If that happens, do that. That’s not currently in place. That’s the first step. After that I think we need to talk about the limits in general. Are they right, or should they be revised so that we don’t get into deviations in the first place, and then the lastly the conversation should be do we or don’t we make infrastructure changes which are expensive and time consuming. If ‘17 and ‘19 is a double blip, is it actually worth investing that much money.  

JAMES: MANY WETLAND AREAS ARE CONSIDERED NATURAL BARRIERS TO FLOODING. ONE OF PLAN 2014’S GOALS IS TO BUILD UP THOSE NATURAL BARRIERS TO PROTECT FROM FUTURE FLOODING. WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS? 

BERNIE: That’s a really difficult question. … I believe that biologists are competent and know what they are talking about. A natural state is probably easier, but then you need to balance that against the social cost of what you just proposed. So you have a whole lot of people that are rightfully here. We own the land. We have a deed to the land. A lot of people have deeds to the land. You’re just going to tell them to go away? That’s the challenge, right?  In an ideal world, take all the shore infrastructure away and do it differently. Yeah, that sounds great, at what cost? And who’s going to pay for it?  

JAMES: AFTER NATURAL DISASTERS IN OTHER REGIONS, LIKE SUPERSTORM SANDY, LOCAL GOVERNMENTS PURCHASED VULNERABLE PROPERTIES TO ALLOW THEM TO RETURN TO A MORE NATURAL STATE. COULD THAT HAPPEN ON LAKE ONTARIO? 

BERNIE: They might. I think that there are certain areas where people may well have overextended their development. Do I think that it makes sense to review the development plans? Absolutely. Do I think that we need to develop every last foot of Lake Ontario? No, I don’t. Do I think that wetlands are worth preserving? Yeah, I do. How you do all that is a difficult question, but it’s worthwhile doing. I envision the government stepping and going ‘you took all this damage, here’s a FEMA check, we don’t want you to rebuild, so here’s your buyout so we don’t have to deal with this again. We can bulldoze the houses down, and we can return this to farmland’. It’s an interesting question. We’re all living on borrowed time.  

The full list of board members can be found here.

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