|Dear IJC: Listen to the Voice of Boaters|
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By Dennis L. Schornack
The International Joint Commission (IJC) is the binational treaty organization that regulates works such as dams and weirs in waters shared by the U.S. and Canada. By regulating water levels and current flows, the IJC directly affects the personal safety and property investments of more than 5 million Great Lakes boaters—high stakes that warrant careful attention to people with a vital interest.
In Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, the IJC is struggling to set a new regulation plan for the massive Moses Saunders Dam that spans the river at Massena, New York. New regulations would establish water levels for the lake and current flows through the river within ranges deemed to best serve the interests of boaters and shippers, riparian property owners, power utilities and environmental conservationists in both countries. They would replace regulations established a half century ago when the mix and strength of interests, scientific knowledge and water uses was very different.
But after nearly nine years and $30 million, the IJC’s work has stalled and the entire project is on life-support. Money to model new plans or “tweak” existing options has run out, along with the patience of governments and citizens with the commission’s protracted process of making a decision. The progressive give-and-take among competing interests that led to a fragile consensus on a new regulation plan in 2006 has been replaced by the shoot-and-duck strategies of interests that have retreated to the bunkers of old positions.
Unless current commissioners act boldly and quickly, efforts to adopt a modern regulation plan for the Moses Saunders Dam are doomed. In case they haven’t noticed, there is a new president in America and they are all lame ducks. This author is aware that at least one call has been made and one new appointment has already been settled; the rest will soon follow.
The learning curve for new commissioners is long and steep, resources are scarce and what is left of the consensus among interest groups is rapidly deteriorating. New commissioners will have new priorities, and resurrecting a Lake Ontario/St. Lawrence River regulation may not be among them. So, a new commission is as likely to close the book on this project as they are to ask for more money and time to finish what the present commission seems incapable of finishing.
In the Upper Great Lakes and St. Clair River, the IJC is seeking to understand why lake levels have been falling and whether changes in the St. Clair River are responsible. The only works under IJC jurisdiction here are two small dams on the St. Marys River, and their ability to influence the levels of lakes Superior and Huron/Michigan is marginal at best. Adding its informed voice to those calling attention to climate change may be the most the IJC can do here.
Because policies concerning climate change are not under IJC control, the best it can do is to harness the support of interest groups like boaters and riparian property owners to inform and encourage action by the federal governments. This requires the active engagement and education of large numbers of people and using the many organs of communication available to reach the broadest audience possible.
Mysteriously, the IJC has failed to include people with important, vital interests in lake levels within the folds of its Upper Lakes Study. Specifically, it has failed to include 5 million Great Lakes boaters in its deliberations. Boat sellers have been given a seat at the table, but boat sellers don’t share the same concerns as boat users about exposed rocks, shifting bottoms and changing currents. After all, a sunken boat is just another sales opportunity.
IJC commissioners are conservative, risk-adverse creatures who act only when they have consensus. While laudable in many respects, these conditions impair efficiency and lead to lengthy delays, watered-down results, or both. They need to remember that they are not elected and that their actions do not determine the political fate of the leaders who appoint them.