07.22.20

SCHUMER, GILLIBRAND TO IJC: IMMEDIATELY TAKE UP VITAL RECS IN FORTHCOMING GAO REPORT ON PLAN 2014; AT SENATORS’ REQUEST, GAO INITIATED AN INVESTIGATION TO REVIEW PLAN 2014 FOLLOWING RECORD HIGH LAKE ONTARIO WATER LEVELS, WITH RECOMMENDATIONS IMMINENT, SENATORS CALL FOR IMMEDIATE IMPLEMENTATION

Following Lake Ontario’s record-setting high water level floods, Senators Secured GAO Investigation to Assess IJC’s Development of Plan 2014, IJC’s Process to Take Up Changes to Plan 2014, and IJC’s Incorporation of Stakeholder Concerns 

Senators Call On IJC To Immediately Take Up GAO Recommendations To Be Formally Released Shortly And Implement The Recommendations In Their Own $1.5M Plan 2014 Overhaul Study That Schumer, Gillibrand Procured Funding For 

Schumer, Gillibrand To IJC: Implement GAO Recs Now & Improve IJC’s Management of Lake Ontario Levels, Better Safeguard Flooded Communities Still Suffering From Aftermath Of Pandemic 

Following years of support for the Lake Ontario And St. Lawrence River Communities impacted by high water levels and severe flooding, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer and U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand today urged the International Joint Commission (IJC) to incorporate the recommendations from the forthcoming Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, titled “Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Plan, Improved Communication and Adaptive Management Strategy Could Help Address Stakeholder Concerns,” which reviews the IJC and the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board of Control’s development and implementation of Plan 2014, their approach to implementing and effectively incorporating concerns of stakeholders on Plan 2014, and the extent to which IJC has developed a process to assess and adjust Plan 2014 . The GAO’s recommendations address the need for increased transparency and improved efficacy of the IJC’s process for evaluating and changing Plan 2014, both of which the Senators believe must be implemented by the IJC. 

Additionally,  Schumer and Gillibrand pushed for the IJC to immediately incorporate the GAO’s recommendations into the Plan 2014 expedited overhaul analysis that the IJC began earlier this year.  The IJC began this expedited overhaul analysis as part of  a $1.5 million appropriation that the senators secured in the Fiscal Year 2020 bipartisan omnibus spending package last year. The Senators said that incorporating the GAO’s recommendations, which include bolstering its policies and practices on transparency and incorporating public input from lakeshore communities and stakeholders, is necessary to help improve the IJC’s overhaul analysis that is now in progress.  The overhaul analysis, began earlier this year by the IJC’s Great Lakes Adaptive Management Committee (GLAM) and expected to take 18-24 months, is examining ways to fix and improve Plan 2014’s mechanisms for controlling Lake Ontario’s water levels.

“After Lake Ontario communities experienced record flooding in 2017 and again in 2019, it’s clear that Plan 2014 is in need of a major overhaul,” said Senator Schumer. “That is why I am urging the IJC to take the GAO’s recommendations and utilize the findings and recommendations now as the IJC conducts its expedited joint US and Canadian Plan 2014 overhaul analysis study that I helped secure funding for. The issues caused by sky-high water levels in Lake Ontario, like severe flooding and damages costing millions of dollars, must not be allowed to terrorize the surrounding communities year after year. Especially with the hardships that New York has already experienced this year due to the COVID-19 crisis, we must act now to protect vulnerable communities along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.”

“Communities along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River know too well how necessary it is to implement the new recommendations from GAO. In recent years, shoreline communities have been plagued by record setting flooding and it’s critical that the IJC immediately incorporate these recommendations into overhaul analysis of Plan 2014,” said Senator Gillibrand. “We must do everything we can to mitigate major flooding, improve the resiliency of the shorelines, and protect New York families and businesses – implementing the forthcoming recommendations from GAO are an important step toward that goal. I’m proud to work alongside Senator Schumer to fight for the resources our shoreline communities need as they tackle dual challenges of flooding and the pandemic.”

Following Lake Ontario’s record-setting high water level floods, the senators requested the GAO undertake this review of the IJC and Plan 2014 to address stakeholder concerns about the development and implementation of Plan 2014 and to review the IJC’s incorporation of stakeholder concerns.  Although Congress has no direct oversight or control of the IJC’s decision-making process since the IJC is governed by the US-Canada Boundary Waters Treaty, the GAO has the authority to review the IJC’s U.S. activities and recommend changes.  The GAO began the review in February  and the Senators were recently briefed by the GAO on the findings and recommendations in its forthcoming report. Today, the Senators urged the IJC to adopt the GAO’s recommendations and to specifically  implement these recommendations not only as part of the IJC’s longterm Adaptive Management processes but as part of the IJC’s expedited Plan 2014 overhaul review that now underway and being conducted by the IJC’s Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management (GLAM) Committee. The GAO reviewed the IJC’s process used to develop and evaluate Plan 2014 and the extent to which IJC’s process to develop and select Plan 2014 was consistent with risk-informed decision making. The GAO review also examined how the IJC disseminated information to stakeholders. Lastly it examined whether the concerns of stakeholders, including Lake Ontario property owners are being fully addressed and the extent to which IJC has developed a process to assess and adjust Plan 2014.

 The GAO’s recommendations for the IJC’s Plan 2014 appear below:

  1. The U.S. Commissioners of the IJC should work with the Canadian Commissioners to update the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board Communications Plan and ensure that the plan incorporates best practices for public relations efforts, in particular defining target audiences and developing mechanisms to monitor and inform adjustments to strategies, and generally accepted principles for communicating risk-related information.
  2. The U.S. Commissioners of the IJC should work with the Canadian Commissioners to develop and enter into written agreements with entities that the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management Committee identifies as having information or resources that the committee needs to effectively monitor and evaluate the impacts of Plan 2014.
  3. The U.S. Commissioners of the IJC should work with the Canadian Commissioners to ensure that IJC fully incorporates the key elements and essential characteristics of the adaptive management process into a comprehensive adaptive management strategic plan for Plan 2014.

In the wake of devastating, repetitive flooding in 2017 and 2019, Schumer has previously called for Plan 2014 to be completely overhauled. To help safeguard Lakeshore residents and businesses from costly flood damage and property loss, Schumer has pushed the IJC to address changes to all the mechanisms used to control water levels, such as the current navigation limits (L Limits), so that water outflows can be increased during shipping season, lowering Plan 2014’s trigger levels to allow dam outflow increases sooner, modifying outflows (F-Limit) during the spring and fall to better manage flooding risks, and more.    

Schumer and Gillibrand have long pushed to deliver emergency preparation measures along Lake Ontario. Last year, Schumer traveled to Niagara, Cayuga, and Monroe Counties to tour the flooding damage and advocate for funding for the Great Lakes Coastal Resiliency Study, which would seek to identify and suggest fixes for vulnerabilities across the Great Lakes’ shorelines. In 2017 and again in 2019 Schumer successfully called on the USACE to activate its Emergency Operations Center, allowing the USACE to assist New York State in response efforts and deploy technical assistance teams.   Schumer and Gillibrand also played a paramount role in securing aid for these communities in the wake of the flooding, including arranging for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deploy two expert federal mitigation teams to Lake Ontario communities to help address the flooding issues and successfully pushing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to issue a major disaster declaration, which enabled federal recovery and repair funding to flow to Jefferson, Niagara, Orleans, Oswego, St. Lawrence, Wayne, Cayuga, and Monroe Counties.  Additionally, Schumer and Gillibrand called on the International Joint Commission (IJC) and International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board of Control to assess and take all actions possible to mitigate flood risks to surrounding communities, including the appropriate maximization of outflows at the Moses-Saunders Dam.

Senator Schumer and Senator Gillibrand’s letter calling on the IJC to adopt the GAO’s recommendations appears below:

Dear Chair Corwin,

We write today regarding the forthcoming United States Government Accountability Office report (GAO-20-529), entitled “Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Plan, Improved Communication and Adaptive Management Strategy Could Help Address Stakeholder Concerns.” This report, which we requested, reviews the International Joint Commission (IJC) and the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board of Control’s approach to implementing and effectively communicating with stakeholders on Plan 2014. We urge you to act expeditiously to adopt the following GAO recommendations:

  1. The U.S. Commissioners of the IJC should work with the Canadian Commissioners to update the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board Communications Plan and ensure that the plan incorporates best practices for public relations efforts, in particular defining target audiences and developing mechanisms to monitor and inform adjustments to strategies, and generally accepted principles for communicating risk-related information.
  2. The U.S. Commissioners of the IJC should work with the Canadian Commissioners to develop and enter into written agreements with entities that the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management Committee identifies as having information or resources that the committee needs to effectively monitor and evaluate the impacts of Plan 2014.
  3. The U.S. Commissioners of the IJC should work with the Canadian Commissioners to ensure that IJC fully incorporates the key elements and essential characteristics of the adaptive management process into a comprehensive adaptive management strategic plan for Plan 2014.

It is critical that the IJC have robust plans in place for communication with stakeholders about Plan 2014, as well as for assessing and making changes to the Plan. While we recognize that the IJC Commissioners and the Board have taken actions to facilitate and improve stakeholder communications, we believe that more improvement is needed and these GAO recommendations will help ensure effective communication between the IJC, the Board, and stakeholders moving forward.

In addition, we urge you to incorporate the recommended key elements and essential characteristics from GAO into your adaptive management strategy and process used to assess and evaluate new information in order to improve Plan 2014. Currently, the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management (GLAM) Committee’s long-term adaptive management strategy does not fully incorporate the key elements and essential characteristics of an adaptive management process, which GAO suggested may hinder its ability to both improve Plan 2014 as needed and to promote transparency with stakeholders and Congress.

Given that we secured $1.5 million in federal funding for the IJC to begin an overhaul analysis of Plan 2014 in the Senate Passed-Fiscal Year 2020 Omnibus Spending Package this past winter, we urge you to expeditiously initiate a review study into Plan 2014’s effectiveness building on the work GAO has already done while implementing the GAO recommendations described above.

Thank you for your attention to this important matter, and we look forward to your response. Should you have any questions, please do not hesitate to reach out to our staff.

Sincerely,

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