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December 14, 2016     Post 80
Lake Levels

Lake levels and responsibility

Back to Serious Stuff. Sorry about that but people keep asking me about it so here goes...

After twenty years and millions of dollars of tax payer funded studies the IJC has at last implemented a new plan for management of Lake Ontario's levels. Its main feature is a slightly greater variation of levels at certain key seasons to benefit the lakeshore wetlands so vital to the entire lake's ecological health.

According to the news stories and press releases, the variation in the spring (when Lake Ontario's levels generally rise towards their June maximum) will on average be about 2.4 inches.

Though this will hardly be noticeable at your neighborhood shoreline beach or at the boat dock, a few inches makes a big difference at the edges of a wetland where shoreline gradients are gradual. It will flood large areas previously inaccessible to fish that spawn in weedy shallows and will also encourage a greater variety of aquatic plant growth vital to the wetland health.

More varied plant life means more food for waterfowl and for other wetland birds and animals. A persistent complaint about the historic management of the lake that endeavored to keep the water more constant has been that it favored a highly artificial growth pattern of cattails to the exclusion of everything else in the lakeshore marshes that were directly connected to the lake and the St. Lawrence River.

Last summer Sara B ventured into the Little Salmon River and spent a night at the dock of some schooner friends. While she was there we took the dinghy for a ride up to the head of navigation about a mile upstream. The constancy of cattail growth was strikingly evident here.(see photos above). Little Salmon River is, of course, connected to the lake via a channel that remains open year around. Its level tracks that of the open Lake just as the marshes of Sodus Port Braddock and Irondequoit bay and the St. Lawrence do.

A week or so before the cruise I had taken my canoe about a mile up Blind Creek to take photos of our beaver dam. The marsh vegetation here is very different from that of the Little Salmon River and includes at least a dozen different plants. I'm no wetlands expert and can't identify the various sedges and reeds that fringe the marsh edge, but I could readily see the more showy emergent plants like the blue flag, marsh milkweed, and several types of woody shrubs as I paddled past them.

Blind Creek is normally closed off from the lake by a gravel bar and fluctuates independent of the lake. At times when it gets 3 or 4 feet higher than the lake, it 'blows' open and drops suddenly to lake level over a few hours exposing a fringe of mud around the edge of the marsh. This more natural variation has made it more diverse than Little Salmon River and other lakeshore marshes connected with the channelized big bays.

Greater biodiversity of plants lends stability and resilience to the entire lake wide eco system since all life here ultimately begins with plants and various attached and planktonic algae. Greater resiliency means a more healthy lake. It's worth emphasizing that a huge amount of the lake's overall productivity and ecosystem diversity depends on the sun lit shallows of its bays and wetlands. Some estimates hold that three quarters of the lake's fishes depend on inshore areas at some stage of their lives. These "nursery areas” make up only about 14 % of the lake's total area, yet they are vital to its overall health.

According to a scientific paper published in Bioscience (2011) on the general importance of near shore zones in 14 large lakes including Ontario “The vast majority (more than 93%) of species inhabit the shallow, nearshore littoral zone, and 72% are completely restricted to the littoral zone, even though littoral habitats are a small fraction of total lake areas.“

As the paper points out the lake Edge is where the “nexus” between human activity and the lake takes place. And with that comes inevitable degradation.

People, as I said in my video, enjoy predictable environments. They don't like large sudden changes in the lake level. So since the Seaway and the big hydro dams went in the goal for Lake Ontario levels has been as predictable (and constant) as possible. When over 20 years ago I attended a talk in at SUNY Brockport about the need to change that policy, I suspect no one could anticipate just how crazy the waterfront real estate propaganda machine would become.

Somehow a three inch change became three feet and the mayors, real estate interests, and more naive homeowners ate it up. Panic ensued and with it vitriol and anger. A New York Congressman and Trump supporter, no doubt sensing a chance to embed himself with his constituency as a hero and be re elected for it, has said “The incoming Republican administration will know from Day 1 how important it is to eliminate Plan 2014 once and for all”.

Of course, there has also been a lot more building of McMansions along the lake shore since the IJC studies began and since Congress gave the real estate biz a biggie in the form of capital gains exclusions on home sales. And we all know how money talks.

At first how these outright lies and falsehoods took root baffled me. I simply could not understand how the IJC plan could be so mis represented. Surely, many of these people were not intentionally deceiving others with their rants. I suspect in the long run boat wakes cause more shoreline erosion in the built up bays than lake level changes do.

Well, after the last Presidential Election I'm beginning to understand how it works. As Mark Twain said Lie can get half way around the world before Truth even gets its boots on. Lie can be dressed up to make a really simple dramatic story that hits the fears, anxieties and the old greed/power button dead on. Truth doesn't have a chance against Fake News (and self interest).

Truth is complicated, as is nature for what is nature but ultimate honesty? Often Truth is subtle, too. And it may take some time to understand. Time and patience seem lacking in much of 'successful' America these days. And general sound bite based journalism has a hard time with it, too. A news story on the lake levels plan called it a “win” for enviros and a “defeat” for home owners.

In my book “Saving The Lake” I pondered this lake level quandary and asked what if the various interests were to consider not their rights under the European style law but their responsibilities as defined by the core of indigenous law? Home owners would then understand that living with the lake means you adapt to the lake. And to the needs of other human and non human stakeholders. If your narrow interests “win” in the short run, a whole lot of other interests including those of your children “lose” in the long run.

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