Fair Haven Flooding

Lake levels continue to rise at Fair Haven Beach State Park in June.

New York expanded its lawsuit against the International Joint Commission and is seeking more than $50 million in damages from the bi-national panel for its alleged failure to prevent Lake Ontario flooding in 2017. 

According to the lawsuit filed in state Supreme Court by state Attorney General Letitia James, New York is seeking compensation for damages to state property, money spent by the state to repair damage caused by the flooding and the loss of recreational activities during the record-high water levels. 

The lawsuit accuses the U.S.-Canadian commission, which oversees shared boundary waters between the two countries, of negligence and failing to follow its protocol for operating the Moses-Saunders Power Dam, which is used to control outflows from Lake Ontario. 

The attorney general's office also claims the commission didn't implement its flood relief plan in 2017 and 2019 when high water levels affected Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River shoreline communities. The state says the commission should've increased outflows "to the maximum extent possible" to prevent flooding. 

The new complaint incorporates the initial lawsuit filed by the state Department of Environmental Conservation in October. The expanded lawsuit covers other state agencies that were involved in the response to Lake Ontario flooding or affected by flood damage. 

"The International Joint Commission failed their primary mission of properly managing Lake Ontario's water levels," James said in a statement. "We will not stand by while the IJC continues to expose New Yorkers to dangerous flooding." 

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Several shoreline communities dealt with flooding in 2017 — months after the commission's adoption of Plan 2014 to manage Lake Ontario water levels. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other federal, state and local elected officials believe Plan 2014 contributed to the record-high water levels. The commission blamed excessive rainfall in the Great Lakes Basin. 

This year, there was more flooding along Lake Ontario. Elected officials again blamed 2014 and the commission for failing to prevent water levels from rising. The commission said extreme weather, including excess rainfall, was the cause. 

The updated lawsuit details the damages to the state, including more than $4 million to state parks, beaches, boat docks, boat launches and campgrounds in 2017. There were more than $2 million in damages to these facilities this year, according to Cuomo's office. 

Responding to the flooding came at a great cost to the state. The state emergency operations center, which is maintained by the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, was activated for 125 days to oversee the response. The state Department of Transportation led the filling of sandbags and managed its incident command system. The DEC and New York National Guard installed water barriers, pumps and other equipment to protect lakefront properties. 

The cost to the state, according to Cuomo, was over $37 million. The price tag doesn't include the funds established by the state to assist homeowners and businesses. 

"The IJC's mismanagement of Lake Ontario water levels wreaked havoc on vulnerable shoreline communities and the resulting damage carries a stiff price that shouldn't be shouldered by the state of New York or by the very property owners the commission was supposed to protect," Cuomo said. 

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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.


Online producer and politics reporter

I have been The Citizen's online producer and politics reporter since December 2009. I'm the author of the Eye on NY blog and write the weekly Eye on NY column that appears every Sunday in the print edition of The Citizen and online at auburnpub.com.