US-Canada Great Lakes Conservation Deal Passes in the Final Days of the Obama Administration

Plan 2014 replaces 58 year old plan to control water levels in Great Lakes region

The federal governments of the US and Canada have approved a new water management plan for the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario. After 16 years of research, public and stakeholder involvement, and environmental lobbying, the International Joint Commission (IJC) approved Plan 2014, which will replace Plan 1958, in January 2017. Plan 2014 will use the Moses-Saunders Dam on the St. Lawrence to improve water levels in the two countries’ shared water systems, restoring more natural ecosystem conditions originally displaced by Plan 1958.

The IJC implemented Plan 1958 before ecosystem dynamics were a common consideration in environmental law. The plan shrank the range of water-level variability in the water systems in order to minimize risk to manmade structures caused by extreme highs and lows. Since some plant and animal species did best in relative high or low water-levels, Plan 1958 caused a boom in species that did best in moderate conditions. Consequentially, the ecosystem was overrun by cattails, displacing other species and shrinking biodiversity. By strategically using the dam to increase the overall range of water-levels, Plan 2014 will broaden environmental variability in the area, permitting a greater range of species to survive.

The IJC approved the original plan in order to protect human structures, and Plan 2014 will continue that protection. The most extreme highs and lows in water height will still be blocked, so infrastructure won’t be threatened by natural flooding.  There are also some positive side effects of the plan to unrelated human interests: it will extend the recreational boating season and slightly increase hydroelectric power production for both the US and Canada.  Overall, Plan 2014 is a strategy to expand opportunities for biodiversity without threatening flood damage.

This achievement is the culmination of work started in 2000. Over a decade of scientific research and public involvement went into the draft of Plan 2014, but it faced two years of political gridlock. Thanks to several trips to Washington and relentless pressure on John Kerry and his Canadian counterpart Stéphane Dion for their approval, Audubon New York helped push the IJC to an agreement on a final deal. Audubon New York’s efforts have reached their fruition just in time during the last days of the Obama administration.