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Fair Haven flooding

Private docks and boat hoists are under water in Fair Haven in June 2017.

Until last year, the International Joint Commission was a relatively obscure bi-national organization.

The six-member panel consisting of representatives from the United States and Canada formed more than a century ago to settle issues involving shared waterways. The commission's responsibilities, as detailed on its website, include regulating shared water uses, improving water quality, improving air quality and investigating transboundary issues.

In 2017, the IJC received attention when flooding along Lake Ontario was blamed on Plan 2014, a water management plan adopted by the commission in late 2016. Elected officials, including U.S. Rep. John Katko, and some residents believed it was Plan 2014 that contributed to higher-than-normal water levels and caused flooding that affected shoreline communities.

Members of the IJC and the scientific community noted that record rainfall in the basin was what contributed to the flooding.

Despite statistics and other evidence to back up the IJC, there were calls for new representatives on the commission. Last year, U.S. Rep. Chris Collins urged President Donald Trump to nominate new commissioners to fill the U.S. seats on the panel.

Last week, Trump did just that. He nominated three people, including a New Yorker, to represent the United States as members of the IJC. The nominations were sent to the U.S. Senate Tuesday.

Katko, who has been one of the leading critics of Plan 2014 and the IJC, praised the president's nominations.

"I now urge the Senate to move forward in swiftly considering these nominees, and believe that anyone confirmed to this position must look closely at Plan 2014 and work to address the significant problems it has caused for Lake Ontario shoreline communities," Katko, R-Camillus, said in a statement.

Jane Corwin

Corwin, a former New York state assemblywoman, would replace Lana Pollack as the U.S. section chair. Pollack was appointed to the commission by President Barack Obama.

As an ex-Republican lawmaker whose district included a handful of western New York towns along the Lake Ontario shoreline, Corwin is already familiar with the commission. Having a New York on the panel, she explained in an interview with The Citizen, may have been an important factor in the president's decision to nominate her to the commission.

"I think it's important to have someone from this area," she said.

Corwin said she had conversations with the White House leading up to the nomination, but she was quick to point out that the commission's mission is to be independent and make recommendations to the United States and Canadian governments.

She also stressed the importance of science-based decisions and making policy recommendations based on experts' advice.

While the flooding along Lake Ontario occurred after Corwin left office, she was a member of the state Assembly when Plan 2014 was adopted. She opposed Plan 2014 as an elected official, according to news reports and public statements.

She conceded it would be a "big lift" to withdraw from Plan 2014, mainly because it would require the support of the Canadian commissioners. But what she wants to aim for is a reevaluation of water management plan.

"I think it's important to keep in mind with Plan 2014 that in the methodology leading to the recommendation, leading to the final product, they did take into consideration worst-case scenarios as far as weather events," she said. "The problem is it didn't take into consideration an extreme enough event which is what we ended up experiencing."

Corwin added, "What I would like to bring to the table is an emphasis on the science, making sure that we take into consideration the extreme weather that we're experiencing and making sure that the scientific community has the opportunity to weigh in on those extreme scenarios. Because if you go by how the weather has been in recent years we deal with extreme events and we want to make sure that we have that incorporated into any policy recommendations."

As chair, Corwin said she would seek to boost the commission's public outreach efforts. She wants to improve communications between the commission and the public, especially with residents living along the shorelines.

Jim Howe, director of the Nature Conservancy's central and western New York chapter, is a proponent of Plan 2014. But he also believes the state benefits from having representation on the commission.

"I think we should all be pleased about that here in New York," he said of Corwin's nomination.

Rob Sisson

Sisson has worn many hats in his career. He is a former commercial banker and was mayor of Sturgis, Michigan. He also served as the Sturgis city commissioner.

He is now president of ConservAmerica, a group that formed for Republicans who support environmental protection and conservation. It is now a nonpartisan organization, according to its website.

Sisson has family in upstate New York. His sister-in-law lives in the Syracuse area and he has ties to the Tug Hill region east of Lake Ontario.

"Listening to stakeholders is a key part of the IJC's mission, and I look forward to getting to one of my favorite places in America — upstate New York — to learn from them," he wrote in an email to The Citizen.

As a Michigander, Sisson brings a different perspective to the commission. Michigan is surrounded by the Great Lakes, which fall under the IJC's jurisdiction. He has visited areas in the western U.S., including Montana, and is aware of the shared boundary waters there.

The shared border waters, he explained, provide hydroelectric energy, irrigates crops and support transportation.

"For example, to ranchers and communities along Montana's sparsely populated Hi-Line, the IJC's work on water apportionment issues is critical to maintaining their livelihoods and way of life," he said.

In his email, Sisson said he is "acutely aware" of Plan 2014 and concerns about the water management strategy.

"If confirmed, a priority will be to immerse myself in the current status of findings and recommendations from the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence committee, the Adaptive Management Committee, stakeholders and IJC's professional staff," he said.

Lance Yohe

Yohe, a Fargo resident, has spent most of his adult life working on boundary water issues.

Perhaps his most important role was as executive director of the Red River Basin Commission. The commission is comprised of representatives from Manitoba, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.

The goal of that panel, much like the IJC, is to build consensus. Because the Red River Basin Commission is a nonprofit organization and a registered charity in Canada, it lacked the authority to "tell anybody what they had to do," Yohe said in a phone interview. They had to work with federal, state and local representatives to address water management issues.

"That kind of experience is what I hope to bring to the IJC, and what I think the IJC is partially set up to help us do between the two countries," Yohe said.

If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Yohe said his first job will be to learn more about the issues. He plans to study Plan 2014 and learn more about the water management plan, along with other issues affecting shared U.S.-Canada waterways.

As for his vision, he wants to find ways for both countries to cooperate.

"Find answers that work for both sides," he said. "That's what I really want to try and do."

What's next?

Corwin said the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will consider the nominees. There is no timetable for when a hearing will be held. If the nominees clear the committee, the full Senate will vote on whether to confirm them.

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Online producer Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or robert.harding@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.

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