New York state will file a lawsuit against the International Joint Commission alleging the bi-national panel that oversees shared boundary waters between the U.S. and Canada failed to properly manage Lake Ontario water levels.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday visited the Rochester area to announce the legal challenge, which will be filed by the state Department of Environmental Conservation. He contends the commission's failure to manage water levels led to flooding in central, northern and western New York communities along the shoreline.
Water levels reached record highs in 2017 and communities in eight counties — Cayuga, Jefferson, Monroe, Niagara, Orleans, Oswego, St. Lawrence and Wayne — reported flood damage. The lake levels broke the record this year by eclipsing 249 feet and more flooding was reported.
Cuomo said the state has attempted to communicate with the commission about the lake levels and the need for action, but the panel has been "wholly unresponsive." He also claimed the commission didn't take action to "make the situation any better."
He estimated the cost to repair flood-damaged infrastructure and properties would exceed $1 billion. The state is seeking compensation from the commission.
The lawsuit, according to Cuomo's office, accuses the commission of breaching its duty "by failing to take sufficient steps to protect the interests of New York property owners on the Lake Ontario shoreline" and claims the IJC "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."
New York's legal challenge also alleges the commission's failure to increase outflows from Lake Ontario constitutes an invasion of property.
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"Litigation is a last resort," Cuomo said. "It comes from frustration. It comes from the lack of responsiveness of the IJC. It comes from their clear negligence and from their series of excuses."
The commission, which consists of three members from the U.S. and three from Canada, has said the flooding was caused by wet weather in the Great Lakes Basin. There were high rainfall totals in 2017 and 2019.
But Cuomo and other elected officials believe Plan 2014 — a Lake Ontario water management plan adopted by the commission in 2016 — is to blame. A bipartisan group of federal, state and local leaders pressed the commission to either repeal or amend the plan.
Members of the commission said in June they would seek support from the two countries to conduct a review of Plan 2014.
The Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board, which the commission tasked with executing Plan 2014 and managing lake levels, adjusted Lake Ontario outflows that led to a decline in the levels over the summer. Outflows remained at record highs for most of the summer, according to the IJC's website.
But Cuomo doesn't believe enough was done to prevent flooding along Lake Ontario.
"The IJC's function is to manage the lake level. That is their job: to manage the lake level," he said. "They have failed to manage the lake level."