Cobourg Council Responds to Lake Level Flooding

The gallery at Cobourg Council was standing room only when Sarah Delicate of United Shoreline made her presentation to Council at Monday’s Committee of the Whole meeting.  Sarah gave an excellent summary of the situation with the flooding on Lake Ontario where new rules for controlling lake levels have been put in place per the new Plan 2014. Introduced in 2017, this replaces Plan 1958DD which was in place from the 1950’s to 2016.   The key difference is that Lake Levels are now allowed to vary much more widely with a high level 30 cm (one foot) higher than previously.  Her full presentation is available at the link below but I will provide a summary.  MPP David Piccini was also at the meeting and spoke in support of Sarah.

Sarah Delicate - David Piccini
Sarah Delicate – David Piccini

The same group made a similar proactive presentation to County Council in April this year (see report in link below) but the only action taken by the County was to recommend that the Provincial and Federal governments be requested to strike a committee to review mitigation and safety plans for the communities affected.

We were told that the flood of 2017 was highly unusual but the even higher levels in 2019 point to a likelihood of many repeats.  The new plan effectively is a “plan for floods” but worse is the fact that there are no Provincial of Federal plans to mitigate or compensate for the effects despite the fact that these are legally required.  New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is sufficiently concerned that he is suing the International Joint Commission (IJC) which is responsible for this fiasco.

Some Facts (per Sarah’s presentation)

  • 85% of Lake Ontario inflow comes from Lake Erie which is currently at a record high.
  • Lake levels are controlled by the Moses Saunders Dam in Cornwall which controls outflow and follows rules set by the IJC.  The commission has 3 Canadian members and 3 from the U.S.
  • Plan 2014 is designed to allow for “higher highs” and “lower lows” on Lake Ontario, over extended periods of time.
  • The “average” level with plan 2014 is 6 cm (2.4”) higher but the extremes allowed are 30 cm (a foot) higher.
  • The range allowed has changed from 4’ to 7’ – then add ½ – 2 meter waves!
  • They could have released more water in the fall so we were lower coming into the spring (L. Erie record highs…). But Plan 2014 does not allow it. The levels are left high, by design. [You might say that the flood is deliberate].
  • When the commission says that they are releasing the ‘maximum possible’, what they  actually mean is the maximum permissible by Plan 2014, not the maximum humanly possible. They cannot deviate until extreme triggers are reached.
  • Approximately 60% of the Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River shoreline is residential land use. An estimated 25,000 privately owned riparian properties are located on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River upstream of the Moses-Saunders Dam.
  • Municipalities appear to be the losers in Plan 2014. (Hydro and Shipping are winners)
  • The claimed benefits of plan 2014 to wetlands are not supported by Science according to Dr. Frank Sciremammano who was a member of the IJC study (since fired) and is a current member of the International St-Lawrence River Board of Control.
  • Plan 2014 will cost millions in coastal damages and emergency response but the burden is on Municipalities and shoreline citizens.

After Sarah’s presentation, Shannon Murphy, Cobourg’s Emergency Planner said that having heard Sarah’s presentation, she was now convinced that the existing “all hazards” emergency plan was not sufficient and that a specific floods peril plan was required (Mayor John Henderson agreed with this).

Over the past weeks, many councillors have visited affected properties and have seen the problems first hand.  But the Town’s official reaction to date has been to offer sandbags but no labour assistance.

Deputy Mayor Suzanne Séguin said that this is a wake-up call and we should not be asking citizens to fill sandbags.

One comment I heard was “if the Fire Department comes to put out a fire at a valuable home on the waterfront, why does it not also help with a flood danger?”  Sarah said that in Bowmanville (where she lives), the  Fire Department does help. They are trained to organize volunteers with sand bags etc.

One of the problems is getting the Provincial and Federal Governments to take notice.  MPP David Piccini is helping with a letter to the Ministry and other MPPs are also assisting.  But so far, there has been no response to these requests for help.  David’s letter to Catherine McKenna Minister of Environment and Climate Change includes the statement:

I am writing to stress the need to review the International Joint Commission (IJC) plan from 2014 which was created to control water levels along the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario. Given the regular occurrence of these catastrophic floods and the calls from New York State and impacted municipalities on both sides of the borders, I urge you to engage with Ontario and representatives from Quebec, New York State and the IJC to immediately review Plan 2014 and recommend changes to protect landowners. Simply put, the plan is not working and does not protect the shoreline communities on Lake Ontario.

Separately, he has also reminded citizens of the availability of Disaster Recovery Assistance programs.

At the end of all the discussion, Deputy Mayor Suzanne Séguin made a (long) motion that asked the Federal and Provincial Governments to review Plan 2014 and to evaluate it for “effectiveness and verifiable impacts” and that a committee be formed to “review mitigation and safety plans for the communities fronting the Great lake and the St. Lawrence Seaway”.  The full motion is available at a link below.

And given the comments by Shannon and John Henderson, an Emergency Flood plan will be created for Cobourg.


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4 years ago

I see that Ontario Shore line is at it again…. The high water events that are being observed are extremely similar to 2017 in that it is the precipitation in the spring along with the run off In the Lake Ontario and Ottawa river basins that caused the flooding and the same result would have occurred if Plan 1958DD was in effect.

Firstly the Regulation Plan is about regulating the St Lawrence River Flow not the level of Lake Ontario and takes into account the needs of stakeholders beyond those that border Lake Ontario. Rather than Reiterate my detailed dissertation about how the plan worked in 2017 in my April 15 to 19th 2018 posts in this blog.

Firstly to dispel a few of the myths in the presentation…..

It is true that “85% of Lake Ontario inflow comes from Lake Erie” but that is a long term average for the year. In the spring and fall that percentage is drastically reduced as run off from snow and spring rains accounts for much more of the inflow. For example the Long term average rain in the Lake Ontario basin in May was 144% of Normal and if you consider Cobourg for a Bench Mark, the Average rain fall in the period of January to end of May is 305 mm whereas the weather station at my house recorded 570 mm in the same period. (almost twice the average…. Highlighting the hazards of Averages)

They also state that “Approximately 60% of the Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River shoreline is residential land use” which may be true but the plan also covers the concerns of those downstream of Cornwall (More than “Hydro and Shipping are winners”) ….. Have we forgotten the flooding in Gatineau and Montreal

They also state that “When the commission says that they are releasing the ‘maximum possible’….not the maximum humanly possible”. While the statement is based on fact, they do not take into the effect on Equipment damage and the safety of the operators at the dams and weirs along the entire river including those downstream of Cornwall. In addition to Erosion concerns you have to take into account many other factors such as ice conditions etc. The discharges were above 8,000 CMS since early Nov 2018 which means they were near non emergent maximums and we were tracking at or near the 2018 Lake elevations. Didn’t have a problem then with near normal precipitation. So how do you justify higher discharges?

It was the rains people!

Reply to  Adm
4 years ago

My understanding is that ‘Plan 2014’ permits/accepts higher Lake Ontario levels going into winter than the previous plan, and that results in levels in a wet Spring that they can do nothing about
because of the requirement to not add to flooding in the St. Lawrence.
Is that your understanding?
If not, can you provide relevant information/sources?

Reply to  warren
4 years ago

The simple answer to your question is yes. It is simple math. If you have a container that is quite full and if you put liquid in at a rate that exceeds what you are letting out it gets full. That said, it is a little more complicated than saying it was operating to higher trigger elevations in Plan 2014 that caused the container (Lake Ontario) to get full.

Firstly, in 2017 and again this year Lake Ontario elevations did not exceed the trigger elevations that were in the previous Plan (ie Lower than today’s Plan). What that means is that regardless to which Plan we were operating to (Current Plan 2014 or previous Plan 1958-DD) the outcome would have been the same.

Secondly, the decisions on determining Lake Ontario Discharges under potential or imminent flooding conditions on Lake Ontario and the St Lawrence looks at many factors and a number of entities are involved in the decision(s) to determine the best options. Depending on the area of concern some of these entities will include, the Lake Ontario St Lawrence River Board (IJC), The Ottawa River Regulating Committee, Ministry of Environment in Quebec and Ontario, Ontario Power generation, Hydro Quebec, Affected Conservation Authorities, Affected Emergency Preparedness Authorities and the like, to determine the best course of action. These actions may include storing water in Lake Ontario or holding back water on the Trent River systems or conservation authority storages or storages on the upper reaches of the Ottawa River in Ontario and Quebec as appropriate and effective to the problem.

Reply to  ADM
4 years ago

Thirdly, if the higher winter elevations of Plan 2014 in 2019 were the problem as many point to as the culprit again this year, then, why did we not have the same flooding in 2018? The elevations were nearly identical through to late April 2019. The answer is that it was the confluence of a number of issues that caused the problem(s) none of which was Lake Ontario elevation related. Unlike 2018, where late winter early spring conditions were near normal in terms of weather, 2017 and 2019 saw above normal rainfall spread over a vast area of both the Ottawa and Lake Ontario Drainage Basins for an extended period combined with a near simultaneous snow melt in both watersheds (The Upper Ottawa snow melt is usually 2-3 weeks behind Southern Ontario but Southern Ontario was delayed this year). The question is not whether the higher elevations in Plan 2014 is at issue, but whether these weather patterns are the new Norm.

More importantly, if the operating to the new elevations in Plan 2014 is the cause of the problems then why, given the shoreline protection / loss costs, has no one (including shoreline Ontario) initiated an individual or class action lawsuit against the IJC….. It is simple…. Because operating to the new plan is not an initiating / contributing factor.
Lastly Everyone has to remember that the basis criteria for developing the regulation plans outlined in the early 1950’s (before the introduction of the dam at Cornwall) clearly identified that any future regulation plan will not ensure full control of Lake Ontario levels and extreme weather will be a contributary factor.

Ken Strauss
Reply to  ADM
4 years ago

The conclusion from your posting seems to be that Plan 2014 is great and has had no impact on flooding. Trigger levels are better than the intelligent and proactive control of lake levels for the previous 50 years. Cobourg should just forget about having a marina or a beach. Is that correct?

Reply to  Ken Strauss
4 years ago

You are missing the point….. Plan 2014 and Plan 1958DD or any other previous Plan were never meant to deal with extremes such as what was experienced not only recently but in 1973 and 1993….. No Plan can deal with the extremes….It was clearly identified in the Documents that authorized the changes in the 50’s that Lake Ontario is a wild lake and subject to extreme flooding during extreme events (ie greater than Long term normals)…… Focusing on Plan- 2014 solely as the initiating events will take the eye off the real issues that caused the events and we could very well end up with expensive solutions that don’t work….. The real question is was the weather events we saw during 2017 and again 2019 an anomaly or something long-term that requires other measures……

4 years ago

This is really important information.. thank you for reporting is so clearly.

Walter Luedtke
4 years ago

“… proactively controlling water levels prevents flooding; it worked for over 50 years.” Ken Strauss
Flooding along Lake Ontario is not anything new. Its levels hit the current level of 249 feet in June of 1952, and approached that height in 1973 and 1993 as well.
Whenever people’s pocketbooks are hit, things get political and politicians are always quick to point to scapegoats.
In this case, the ‘experts’ of the IJC are to blame, certainly not the weather.
It’s interesting to hear the NY State Nature Conservancy on the subject of flooding: The Nature Conservancy of Central and Western New York has been a consistent supporter of Plan 2014. If left in place, it’ll allow for a more natural variation in water levels, which in turn will have benefits for lakeshore property owners, says Jim Howe, the organization’s executive director. It’ll help restore shoreline wetlands, which absorb the force of waves and provide anti-erosion benefits, he says. Plan 2014 will also allow the lake levels to fall lower in drier months, which will help rebuild shorelines, he says.

Ken Strauss
Reply to  Walter Luedtke
4 years ago

The objective should be to control water levels for the benefit of the people rather than “allow a more natural variation”. Do you prefer that our marina be unusable? Do you prefer that our beach be unusable? It is rather hard to rebuild shorelines when they have been washed into the lake.

4 years ago

Clear, excellent public-service summary of a seemingly complex issue and presentation John.
Perhaps I am missing things, but the root problem, or ‘catch 22’, seems to be that ‘Plan 2014’ permits significantly higher lake-level before humans are permitted to intervene, at which point humans can’t increase the outflow without worsening the St. Lawrence River situation, which is not permitted under ‘Plan 2014’.
Once ‘Plan 2014’ lets the lake level be too high going into the winter season, there is no way to prevent Lake Ontario flooding if the snow-melt and rain is heavy the following Spring.
There is no solution for this season, but for the future, rather than scrapping the ~$20 milllion ‘Plan 2014’, isn’t the boringly simple solution to lower both the maximum Fall-Winter level, and the maximum Spring level to
levels similar to those that worked for decades under the previous management plan?

Reply to  warren
4 years ago

two problems with this
1) the difference between Plan 2014 and Plan 1958DD is inches not Significantly higher
2) People are inherently attracted to water Lower the level only kicks the can further down the road as People will build further out in the lake

4 years ago

What ever happened to the old saying ‘if it aint broke, don’t fix it’ !?

Miriam Mutton
4 years ago

Re: above list of links … how about a link to Plan 2014? Interesting reading.

And, not so sure the new plan is effectively a plan for floods. “Did Plan 2014 cause the flooding? No. Water causes flooding.” said Sarah Delicate in a June 20 interview with Dave Glover on Drive Time on Northumberland 89.7FM. The context for the quote is also interesting listening.

Are municipalities the losers? Less so in Ontario, it seems, according to the Plan 2014 report. After Hurricane Hazel and the tremendous damages suffered at that time the provincial government gave more jurisdiction to conservation authorities to acquire lands and to regulate hazard lands … and now we see their budgets being cut.

Ken Strauss
Reply to  Miriam Mutton
4 years ago

The glossy Plan 2014 report (98 pages) is available at
Of course water rather than a plan causes flooding! However, proactively controlling water levels prevents flooding; it worked for over 50 years. Implementing a plan that uses trigger levels rather than human reasoning to plan outflows is a recipe that guarantees floods. Why was water not being released months before the current high lake levels were reached?

4 years ago

Did MPP Piccini hold out hope for relief from the Province or did he just use this platform for his PR and a chance to bash the Feds? Did anybody ask MPP Piccini how we expect the GRCA to cope with more flooding with a reduced flood planning budget?

Reply to  ben
4 years ago

I think he got in a couple of Selfies

Reply to  sandpiper
4 years ago

Nah, selfies is that other guy.