WATERTOWN, N.Y. (WWNY) - New York state is suing the the International Joint Commission, the agency which regulates water levels on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.
Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the state Department of Environmental Conservation is filing a lawsuit against the IJC "for its mismanagement of Lake Ontario water levels that caused catastrophic damage to shoreline communities."
In a news release, the governor's office says: "As a direct result of the IJC's mismanagement, extremely high water levels exacerbated damage to residences and businesses, swept away large swaths of the shoreline, and upended the lives of thousands of New Yorkers twice in the past three years. Property owners have suffered severe erosion and loss of vegetation, while the State sustained more than $4 million in property damage that it still has not been able to fully repair."
The lawsuit argues that the IJC must compensate the state for the destruction resulting from water level mismanagement.
"The facts of the matter are plain: The IJC's function is to manage the Lake Ontario water levels, and they failed - period. They have been wholly unresponsive and have taken no action to make the situation better," Cuomo said in a prepared statement. "We will not shoulder the burden of the destruction that is a direct result of the IJC's gross mismanagement of Lake Ontario water levels, and the IJC needs to compensate New York for the severe damage to the homes and businesses along the shoreline. That's what this lawsuit is all about."
Specifically, the complaint asserts the following causes of action:
- Negligence: IJC breached its duty by failing to take sufficient steps to protect the interests of New York property owners on the Lake Ontario shoreline.
- Nuisance: Based on the severe flooding that resulted from IJC's mismanagement, IJC was or should have been substantially certain that its conduct would cause an invasion of the State's interest in the use and enjoyment of its land.
- Trespass: IJC failed to increase outflows from Lake Ontario to lower water levels and abate flooding, which constituted an invasion of property.
The state said, in an attempt to mitigate exposure to property owners, it repeatedly called on the IJC to release as much water from the Moses Saunders Dam as possible.
According to the state, rather than protect shoreline communities, the IJC favored commercial shipping interests.
In a June 8 letter to the U.S. and Canadian chairpersons of the IJC, the governor, on behalf of the state of New York, said he called on the commission to take immediate action to correct its water management protocols to remedy the ongoing threat caused by Lake Ontario flooding. The governor demanded that the IJC reimburse New York for its costs, and make additional funds available for resiliency projects and other protective measures made necessary by the IJC's acts and omissions.
The state said the IJC has failed to address any of these demands and instead recently reduced the outflows slightly notwithstanding continued record-high water levels.
As laid out in the DEC's complaint, the state said the IJC can no longer hide behind a claim of sovereign immunity and must now answer for its negligent conduct and failure to adhere to obligatory requirements to address high water levels. The IJC's failure to take action compels the legal action, the state said.
“In 2017 and again this year, I have heard from countless people living along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River whose homes were severely damaged and in some heartbreaking cases, completely destroyed due to flooding. There have been two major flooding situations since the implementation of Plan 2014 just three years ago—yet the International Joint Commission has taken little action to see what can be done to alter the plan and provide necessary relief for property owners. I thank the Governor for continuing to advocate for those who live along our shorelines and for taking this necessary action,” said state Senator Patty Ritchie (R. - 48th District).
“The Governor has shown steadfast leadership on this critical matter and I applaud him on filing this lawsuit. The IJC has to step up to the plate and help foot the bill for the damage their poorly crafted plan has caused,” said Assemblyman Mark Walczyk (R. - 116th District)
7 News has reached out to the IJC for comment.
“We are aware of the governor’s announcement, but have not received formal notice of any action that may have been taken,” said IJC Public Information Officer Frank Bevacqua in an email.