by Randy Pellis
OSWEGO, May 5, 2019 — Someone once said that in hard times, great leaders don’t say everything’s going to be all right. In hard times, great leaders say things are going to be better than ever.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo brought that message to a worried Oswego Sunday in the face of rising lake levels and fears of a replay of 2017’s shoreline destruction.
“The water is now at flood level,” Cuomo said after touring the Oswego shoreline in a thick morning fog. “If you’ve experienced flooding in the past, in 2017, the same places that got hit before will probably get hit again.
“If we have any additional rain, we’re over the flood level. If the IJC (the International Joint Commission) does not continue to release water, we’re over the flood level. If the wind picks up, and you have waves, you are over the flood level. And that is the most likely scenario, that the wind picks up, the wave action picks up, and then we have a problem. We hope that doesn’t happen, but the likelihood is that it very well may.
“I think this is part of a new normal. I would love to be able to say we’ll never go through what we went through in 2017. It’s not true. We know that there have been changes in the weather, and we know that these situations now are occurring.
“We’ve spent a lot of money in the past in rebuilding after an emergency and replacing what was there before the emergency. At this point that is a fool’s errand because what was there, by definition, is not enough. And we need to accept the new reality that we have to fortify our shorelines, we have to build back, but we have to build back better than before – higher, stronger, fortify these areas. Assume these high water levels are going to continue going forward. I believe they are. Let’s accept a reality that we should actually build to a higher standard than ever before. Let’s accept it and stop spending millions of dollars to repair damage, and let’s actually build a waterfront that can sustain these higher levels.”
For now, Cuomo has ordered more than 100,000 sandbags, two sandbaggers and 250 feet of aquadam (a temporary four foot high dam filled with water) dispatched to locations throughout the county, as well as a long-arm excavator with an operator to assist with aquadam deployment. And along with all that come 100 members of the state’s National Guard.
But Cuomo sees a limit to what the state can do.
“The state has committed tens of millions of dollars,” said Cuomo, “and we’ll do as much as we can, but this is a fundamental transition in the infrastructure of this state and this country. Five hundred miles of shoreline just in New York state. We can’t build enough to protect 500 miles of shoreline. We can build back in those vulnerable points, and we
can improve those, but we’re going to need federal help if we’re going to make the difference we should be making, because it literally is the entire north shore of the state of New York. Let the federal government pass that infrastructure act the way they said they would years ago, and let’s actually build a new waterfront that not only protects us, but enhances us and makes us stronger.
“But,” he went on, “we’re not waiting for the federal government. It would be foolish to wait for the federal government because the federal government has disappointed us over and over and over and over again. They’ve been promising an infrastructure bill for years. You know what we’ve seen? Zero.
“This state is investing more in infrastructure than any state in the United States of America, 150 billion dollars. The infrastructure is crumbling, and it doesn’t wait for congress to act. We’ve spent over 100 million dollars since 2017 to repair the damage of 2017. I want to get past the point though of just repairing damage, and I even want to get past the point of repairing and improving small pockets. We have an opportunity to do a grand master plan to redesign the shoreline. It’ll be good for our economy. It will be safer. It will be better for the environment. And that’s a real investment. Because at this point, it’s not about us, it’s about making sure the place we leave behind is better for our children. And we know now what we have to do. We just have to do it. In the meantime, the state is here as a full partner. We’re going to do everything we can.”
If there’s a villain in this story, it’s really not Mother Nature. It’s the IJC, the international commission tasked with regulating the water level in the Great Lakes. When lake levels rise, their job is to manage the release of lake water through the St. Lawrence River.
What has frustrated Cuomo is the IJC’s refusal to act in a way that could prevent the flooding and damage along New York’s northern shoreline.
“Why does the problem happen?,” Cuomo asked. “Well,” he said, “that takes us back to the IJC, and we have this argument/debate that has been ongoing for years. We get to this position and the IJC says, ‘well, there is nothing we can do. We’re between a rock and a hard place. If we release more water, we reduce the level here, but we increase the flooding in Canada,’ et cetera. We should never get to this place.
“The IJC’s job is to manage the flow of water. When you get to a point where you have flooding, by definition, you have not done your job. This causes hundreds of millions of dollars of damage. And why they can’t release more water earlier they’ve never answered and is beyond me.
“The IJC has to get their act together and has to do a better job so we’re not always in this situation.”
Oswego Mayor Billy Barlow, at the Port to meet with the governor and tour the shoreline with him, praised Cuomo’s remarks and the help the governor has been to Oswego.
“The governor’s right on all counts,” Barlow said. “We are sustaining some severe damage here in the Oswego Harbor. I appreciate the governor’s leadership on the issue: he’s taking the lead on putting pressure on the IJC. From my perspective, that is the core point. We knew the water was going to be high back in March, just because locals who can tell the water levels year to year can see the pattern and the trend. So, I think the governor’s right, that is the main focus, to put some pressure on the IJC, which he’s doing. I think we’re on the right course, and I hope that some improvement to the plans can be made. Since 2017, when the waters first came up and started to create some damage, all state agencies and departments and his staff have been outstanding to work with. They have kept the funding flowing when we’ve needed it, communication lines have remained open, and anything I’ve needed as mayor, as far as resources or funding here in the city of Oswego goes, he’s made available and made sure that everything was here at my disposal to try to mitigate the impact of the issue. So, I thank him for his leadership and all the resources from New York state government. I appreciate you being here Governor again today and focusing on the issues in Oswego.”
Later Sunday morning, I spoke with the mayor, and again, he put the blame squarely on the IJC.
“If they manage the plan properly,” he said, “it doesn’t have to be this bad. I knew in March that the water was high then, and they weren’t releasing it fast enough then. So, now to wait until late April and May and say, ‘well, we can’t release water now because it’ll flood Montreal or wherever,’ that’s probably true, but we should have been thinking about that back in February and March before the ice started to melt and before the rain picked up.”
And so, the city and the state may be in perfect sync when it comes to laying blame at the feet of the IJC, but taking blame is another matter altogether, and the governor was having none of it when it came to the serious issue of the morning’s pea soup foggy weather.
“We’re not responsible for the fog,” said Cuomo. “Fog is a federal responsibility. I don’t know if you know that. It’s in the Constitution.”