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Political pandering has crested

A tidal wave of platitudes has washed over the shores of Northern New York, and we’re all knee-deep in empty rhetoric.

Momentum for this built in 2017 when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ignored years of scientific research and began denouncing the International Joint Commission for its newest water-management practices. Residents along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River were experiencing horrendous flooding that spring, which followed the IJC implementing Plan 2014 earlier in the year.

This policy in early 2017 replaced the IJC’s previous program, Plan 1958-DD. Plan 2014 allows for higher and lower water levels so that Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River will return to more natural flows. In time, this will restore wetlands and wildlife populations.

The IJC’s former policy devastated the health of these waterways. More than a decade of research went into developing a plan that would substantially improve the marine eco-system.

And accomplishing this goal is essential to the North Country environment and our economy. People who make a living off the recreational uses of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River will benefit even more as these waterways are revitalized.

The flooding that occurred in 2017 was very unfortunate. No reasonable individual wants to see people sustain serious property damage as a result of alarmingly high waters.

But some residents, particularly those living around the southern shore of Lake Ontario, erroneously linked the prolonged flooding with the IJC putting Plan 2014 into effect. Cuomo picked up on their anger over the situation and blamed the newly implemented policy for the high waters.

In 2017, the governor paid little attention to the excessive amount of snowmelt runoff and rain that occurred in the North Country that spring. This is what led to the unexpected rise in water levels.

Cuomo also refused to recognize the balancing act that the IJC must perform. It serves the interest of both Canada and the United States. Substantially increasing outflows to lower the levels on Lake Ontario would dump more water on Quebec, which was already flooded itself.

We’ve had another very wet spring and early summer this year with record rainfall. While Cuomo now acknowledges that the weather is a contributing factor to the flooding, given the consequences of climate change, he still believes the IJC isn’t doing its job.

So he’s rattling his sabre once again. He’s even threatened to sue the IJC for … well, I’m not sure what basis he’d have for a lawsuit. But the governor would undoubtedly find something. (He always does.)

And this year, Cuomo isn’t the only elected official making waves.

The Ogdensburg City Council voted unanimously June 10 to pass a resolution calling for Plan 2014 to be repealed. The Lyme Town Council approved a similar measure June 12. And the Cape Vincent Town Council followed suit June 20.

U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., declared on June 17 while visiting Fair Haven in Cayuga County that the IJC needs to tear Plan 2014 apart. State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, and Assemblymen Mark C. Walczyk, R-Watertown, and William Barclay, R-Pulaski, drafted a petition earlier this month to have the water-management policy suspended.

The problem with all this political pandering is that it further feeds people’s misperceptions of Plan 2014. Public officials have a responsibility to address problems honestly by dealing with the facts, not manipulate circumstances to score points with misguided constituents.

Time and again, the IJC has demonstrated that the excessive rain we’ve had this year — just like in 2017 — is the cause of the flooding. And dumping a massive amount of water downstream hasn’t accomplished what the agency’s critics have said they want.

The International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board, created by the IJC to implement Plan 2014, has conducted outflows at record levels. But this only lowers the water levels at most a few inches in a week’s time.

So the high waters remain, kept at unprecedented levels by the incessant rainfall. And northern New York isn’t the only place in the country that’s experienced this kind of flooding.

All the Great Lakes have endured excessive rain, and surrounding regions have their own problems with incredibly high water levels. Since these waterways all flow into each other, what else would we expect here but more water than we can dump in between the deluges?

Members of a group called the Lake Ontario Landowners Association have discussed the possibility of filing a class-action lawsuit against the IJC. They would face a very high burden to prove the agency was responsible for the damage done to their properties, and I seriously doubt they would succeed.

This is a sad turn of events. These people have been led down a dead-end by elected officials who should know better.

Members of this group have been given false hopes by politicians who refuse to face facts and are taking advantage of a tragedy to win support. It’s easy to identify a scapegoat and demand easy fixes to complex problems. In the end, however, doing so won’t achieve their goals.

Some of these public officials have called for the government to fund measures to mitigate the effects of flooding, and this is a good idea. But rather than deflecting the blame for what’s occurred, let’s focus on the real issue.

Climate change has resulted in substantially more rainfall, so we can expect additional flooding in the years ahead. Working to reverse the effects of global warming and protecting shoreline properties from flooding are the proper steps for residents and community leaders to take.

Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times.

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