Lake effect: Research helps protect Lake Ontario’s future
Oct. 10, 2013
by Michelle Cometa
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Plan 2014 for Lake Ontario was off course, but Frank Sciremammano wasn’t abandoning ship. He’s hopeful that the plan to manage shared water resources on the U.S. and Canadian sides of Lake Ontario and the upper St. Lawrence Seaway will right itself with some of his recommendations.
Drawn up by the International Joint Commission, Plan 2014 is a new proposal to manage the water levels that impact commercial, economic and residential interests along the lake. Sciremammano, a professor of mechanical engineering in RIT’s Kate Gleason College of Engineering, is also a member of the St. Lawrence River Board of Control, one of several regional boards that carry out the policies of the international commission. The board determines the weekly outflow from Lake Ontario down the St. Lawrence River in accordance with IJC-specified policies.
Sciremammano recognizes the merits of a modernized plan for lake stewardship. (The current regulation plan was developed in 1963 and is based on the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty that protects interests of both countries.) But he has also raised questions about the plan’s undue economic and environmental burdens on areas along the southern shoreline.
“The IJC says the trigger levels have been incorporated in the latest version of the plan and deviations will protect from extreme levels, but my contention, after 18 years experience operating the system, is that they will not,” says Sciremammano. “The guiding principles of the studies being relied upon to justify Plan 2014 state that no plan should be implemented that would result in a disproportionate loss to any one group or geographic area. This plan concentrates the damages in the south shore communities.”
One of those communities is Monroe County, and Rochester’s lengthy shoreline. These areas exemplify the ecosystem that flourishes along the lakefront: the mix of residences and businesses, protected habitats, as well as a thriving commercial transportation system where nearly 20 million metric tons of cargo is shipped yearly, according to the Seaway Corp. Recreational boating alone, he says, provides $94 million in economic activity annually and approximately 1,350 jobs.
Appointed to the St. Lawrence Control Board in 1995, Sciremammano is one of 10 members, five each from the U.S. and Canada. The board oversees system operations about water flow through several dams along the St. Lawrence River. Regulation of water levels allows for enough depth for commercial ships, he says.
As a member of the faculty for more than 30 years, he brings his experience in hydrology, storm water management, oceanography and environmental management to the board. Often his courses include examples from his board work to show how engineers can help to improve environmental practices.
His contention is that the plan has under-estimated the damages for private property erosion, shoreline infrastructure damage and for reduction in assessments that may result in other challenges. Several local and state agencies have staked a contrary approach.
“I’ve been doing a lot of these over the last two years, but what I’d rather be doing is the technical work to make a better plan,” he says. “Many people have misconceptions about how the lake is regulated, thinking that there is just a valve we open and close at different times. They don’t realize the process or the competing interests.”
Hearings were completed at the end of August and the IJC will make final recommendations to the U.S. and Canadian governments later this fall. In the meantime, Sciremammano remains both an advocate and teacher—on the shore, in the community and in the classroom.