Section 3: Governance and Decision-Making

Three major groups are responsible for the decision-making and governance for the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River system, starting with the Boundary Waters Treaty:

  1. The International Joint Commission (IJC) sets the overall policy for managing flows,
  2. The International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board (ILO-SLRB) regulates flows according to the IJC policies, and
  3. The Canadian and U.S. hydropower entities operate the dams in the St. Lawrence River under the direction of the Board.

3.1 The Boundary Waters Treaty 

3.1.1 What is the Boundary Waters Treaty?  

The Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 was written to help the United States and Canada prevent and resolve disputes over the use of the waters they share.

3.1.2 What are the principal provisions of the Boundary Waters Treaty regarding projects such as dams?  

In very general terms, unless there is a special agreement between the United States and Canada, new uses and obstructions or diversions of boundary waters cannot take place without the prior approval of the IJC if the proposed project will affect the natural level or flow of those waters on the other side of the boundary. The IJC considers interests in both countries in accordance with the Treaty and may require that certain conditions in project design or operation be met to protect interests on either side of the boundary. If the IJC approves a project in response to an application, it issues an ‘ Order of Approval.’ In cases where the operation of the project must meet certain conditions, such as flow requirements through a dam, the IJC appoints a board to monitor compliance with the Order of Approval on an ongoing basis.

3.1.3 Does the Boundary Waters Treaty give precedence to some uses over others?   

Yes. Article VIII of the Boundary Waters Treaty states that the Commission may not approve a use that tends materially to conflict with or restrain any other use given preference over it in the order of precedence The order of precedence among the various uses enumerated in the treaty is stated as: (1) uses for domestic and sanitary purposes, (2) uses for navigation, and (3) uses for power and irrigation purposes. “Domestic and sanitary purposes” include municipal water supply and wastewater treatment. The provisions do not apply to or disturb any existing uses of the boundary waters on either side of the border.

In 2016, the IJC recognized that a given target range of Lake Ontario water levels sets an unrealistic expectation that lake levels can be kept within that range, and found that under extreme supply conditions, it is impossible to keep the lake within a given range. Further, regulation under the 1956 Order harmed the environment by compressing lake level fluctuations too much. Nowadays, the IJC recognizes the full range of conditions that can be experienced and anticipates future changes, while considering all uses, including environmental issues,  recreational boating and tourism both upstream and downstream of the dam.

3.2 The International Joint Commission (IJC)

3.2.1 What is the IJC?  

The International Joint Commission (IJC) was established under the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 to help the United States and Canada prevent and resolve disputes over the use of the waters they share. Under the Treaty, the IJC approves certain projects that affect the natural levels and flows of boundary waters, such as the international navigation (the Seaway) and hydroelectric power project (the Moses-Saunders Power Dam) at Massena, New York and Cornwall, Ontario.

3.2.2 How does the IJC work?  

The IJC has six members known as Commissioners. Three are appointed by the President of the United States, with the advice and approval of the Senate, and three are appointed by the Governor in Council of Canada, with the advice of the Prime Minister. The Commissioners must follow the Treaty in preventing or resolving disputes. They must act impartially in reviewing problems and deciding on issues, rather than representing the views of their respective governments.

The Commission has set up more than 20 boards and task forces, made up of experts from the United States and Canada to help it carry out its responsibilities.

3.2.3 What is the Order of Approval?  

When the IJC approves a project, it issues an Order of Approval, which may require that flows through the project and corresponding levels both upstream and downstream meet certain conditions to protect interests in both countries. The Order of Approval for Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River were first issued in 1952 and amended in 1956, and then again in 2016. They are often referred to as the 2016 Order of Approval.

3.2.4 What are the principal provisions of the Order of Approval for the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River System?  

The 1956 Order approved the construction and operation of the components of the international hydropower project at Massena, New York and Cornwall, Ontario, which affect water levels and flows in Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. These components include channel enlargements that increased the capacity to release water from Lake Ontario, as well as works that regulate the flows. The Order reaffirms the priorities for water use set by the Boundary Waters Treaty (see Q 3.1.2 above), require that the works be operated to provide no less protection to riparian and navigation interests downstream, and state that the IJC will indicate the interrelationships among the requirements of the Order when needed.

The 1956 Order also established the International St. Lawrence River Board of Control (ISLRBC) and provided 11 criteria for managing flows through the project. The first ten of these criteria, including the upper limit of the four-foot range for Lake Ontario water levels, were to be met when water supplies to Lake Ontario were within those experienced during the period of record (1860-1954). The eleventh criterion (called criterion k) applied when water supplies were higher or lower than those experienced during this period. When higher, the outflow from Lake Ontario was to be regulated to provide all possible relief to both upstream and downstream property owners. When supplies were less than those during the period of record, the outflow was to be regulated to provide all possible relief to navigation and power interests.

The 2016 Order superseded the previous Order, presented a new regulation plan (2014), adopted an adaptive management approach and renamed the board the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board (ILO-SLRB). It provided 14 criteria for managing flows through the project. The first 13 of these criteria, are to be met when water supplies to Lake Ontario were within those generally experienced during the period of record (1900-2008). The 14th criterion (called criterion H14) permits the Board to undertake major deviations in times of extremely high or low water supplies. Major deviations are significant departures from the approved regulation plan that are made in response to extreme high or low levels of Lake Ontario in accordance with this criterion. When Lake Ontario levels reach or exceed high trigger levels, the outflow from Lake Ontario is to be regulated to provide all possible relief to both upstream and downstream property owners. When Lake Ontario levels fall to or below low trigger levels, the outflow is to be regulated to provide all possible relief to municipal water intakes, navigation and power purposes upstream and downstream.

3.2.5 Is the Order of Approval ever updated?  

Yes, the IJC systematically reviews its Order of Approval for the projects it has approved along the Canada-United States boundary. As part of this process, the IJC appointed an International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Study Board, which completed an extensive five-year study in March 2006. A potential new approach for regulating water levels and flows was discussed by a Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Working Group, which was convened in December 2009 to provide advice to the IJC. The Working Group included members from Canada, the United States, New York, Ontario, Quebec, and the IJC. The US and Canadian governments officially concurred with the IJC’s June 2014 submission to revise the previous Order and adopt Plan 2014. The Great Lakes Adaptive Management Committee is tasked with conducting on-going and periodic reviews of the components of Plan 2014 and the 2016 Order of Approval. Any potential changes to the Order of Approval represent very complex discussions weighing numerous factors such as environmental, municipal, hydropower, riparian, navigation, and recreational interests and climatic changes, requiring concurrence of the federal governments of both nations.

3.2.6 How does the IJC engage the public?  

The IJC holds public hearings and involves the public in other ways whenever it initiates a study or reviews a dam or other structure for possible approval. IJC boards that monitor the operation of these structures, such as the International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board, also hold public meetings when needed and host social media pages and informative websites. The IJC also occasionally sponsors other conferences, meetings, and round-table discussions, in which members of the public and representatives of community groups and other organizations can take part. Notices and information materials are produced on various topics; these materials and Commission reports are available online and from the IJC offices.

3.3 International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board

3.3.1 What is the ILO-SLRB?   

The International Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Board (ILO-SLRB) is the body that oversees the regulation of water levels and flows in Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, consistent with the requirements established by the IJC. When the IJC approved the international hydropower project in the St. Lawrence River, it appointed the Board to develop and operate a regulation plan to determine flows through the project that are consistent with the Order of Approval. The Board oversees the regulation of outflows and ensures that the requirements set by the IJC in its Order of Approval are followed.

3.3.2 Who is on the ILO-SLRB?

The Board has ten members: five from each country. Current membership can be found on the Board's website. Members are not paid for the time they devote to Board activities beyond any salaries they receive from their employer if they are employed by another institution. The members bring a variety of technical and local knowledge to Board discussions.

3.3.3 How are members of the ILO-SLRB appointed?    

Members of the ILO-SLRB are appointed by the International Joint Commission. Appointments are based on members’ technical background and knowledge of the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River system. Board members are appointed to serve impartially in their personal and professional capacities, not as representatives of particular agencies, interests or geographic regions. Diversity is a guiding principle.

3.3.4 Does the ILO-SLRB take formal votes on its decisions?  

Similar to the IJC, the ILO-SLRB operates by consensus rather than by taking formal votes. The Board discusses the probable outcomes of various courses of action, the views expressed by individual members, and input from the public, until consensus is achieved. If consensus is not reached, additional information and discussion may be required to reach an informed solution.

3.3.5 What is done to ensure that the public has input into ILO-SLRB decisions?  

The ISLRBC actively engages the public through various means including social media, public meetings, public teleconferences, press releases and briefings for stakeholder organizations, news media, and elected officials. The Board also receives and responds to social media posts, phone calls, letters, and e-mail messages.

3.3.6 Are records of ILO-SLRB decisions accessible to the public?   

Yes, the Board announces its flow strategy decisions (e.g., when operating under criterion H14), including the rationale for reaching those decisions in their press releases and posts this information on its Facebook site and website (which also contains the minutes of its meetings and the weekly Lake Ontario outflow plus other related information). Members of the public can also join an e-mail list to receive weekly e-mail updates on recent water levels and flows.

3.3.7 How does the Board increase public awareness of water and weather conditions?    

The Board has a strong social media presence through a popular Facebook page. The Board often holds public meetings and teleconferences and distributes informative announcements on a regular basis to media outlets and which are posted on its website. The Board regularly reaches out to news media, elected officials, stakeholder organizations and its own contact lists to increase public awareness of such information. We encourage others to spread the information and will include anyone who is interested in our regular distributions. Board members and staff and our Facebook page are available to promote public awareness.

3.4 Operators of the Dam

3.4.1: Who actually operates the dam at Cornwall, Ontario and Massena, New York?    

Ontario Power Generation owns and operates the Canadian side of the dam, and the New York Power Authority owns and operates the U.S. side of the dam, both under the direction of the Board. They ensure that outflows follow the releases prescribed by the Plan, or as directed by the Board’s Directive and authority regarding deviations.

3.4.2: What is the Operations Advisory Group (OAG)?    

The Operations Advisory Group consists of navigation and hydropower representatives who provide advice on the impact of the weekly outflows to their respective operations. A different flow than that prescribed by the regulation plan or as directed by the Board deviation strategy may be recommended by the OAG due to operational considerations and constraints. However, any such recommendation is subject to approval by the Board.

3.4.3: What is the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management (GLAM) Committee? 

The Great Lakes – St. Lawrence River Adaptive Management (GLAM) Committee was established in 2015 to report to the three Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River boards (Superior, Niagara and Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence). The GLAM Committee undertakes the monitoring, modeling and assessment related to the on-going evaluation of regulation plans and address other questions that may arise due to changing conditions in consultation with the Boards. 

Over the past century, pursuant to the Boundary Waters Treaty, the IJC has approved the construction and operation of structures that affect levels and flows at Sault Ste. Marie on the St. Marys River, at Niagara Falls on the Niagara River and at Cornwall/Massena on the St. Lawrence River. On the St. Marys River and the St. Lawrence River, flows through these structures are managed according to regulation plans that specify the amount of water to be released under a range of conditions. On the Niagara River, the IJC monitors the maintenance and operation of the Chippawa-Grass Island Pool control structure to meet the scenic Falls beauty requirements of the 1950 Niagara River Diversions Treaty.

Consistent with these responsibilities, the Lake Superior and Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River boards have periodically studied new regulation plans in an attempt to better meet the criteria in the Order of Approval or to provide additional benefits to affected interests. Information on regulation plan impacts is important to support the evaluation process. Short-term study boards have been used in the past to consider improvements to the current regulation plans. The Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River Study (2000-2006) reviewed regulation of levels and flows in the Lake Ontario-St. Lawrence River system. The IJC seeks to make the information and knowledge gained during such studies available to the boards in their on-going review and evaluation of regulation plans as called for in the Order of Approval.

Additionally, per Article 7(1)(i) of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, as amended in September of 2012, the IJC is tasked with ensuring liaison and coordination between the Great Lakes boards and the boards created by the Agreement (i.e., the Great Lakes Water Quality Board (WQB) and Science Advisory Board (SAB)). To better link water levels and flow regulation with water quality considerations, the GLAM Committee engages in outreach activities with the WQB and SAB.