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Student researchers gauge opinions on who's to blame for Lake Ontario flooding

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Emily Haberlack, a student from Iowa State University who studied at RIT this summer, surveys lakeshore residents about their perceptions of Lake Ontario flooding.

An overwhelming number of residents along the Lake Ontario shoreline in the Rochester area say it was Plan 2014, and not climate change, that caused recent flooding.

Those are the preliminary findings of a study led by the Rochester Institute of Technology and funded by the National Science Foundation.

Students from across the country conducted the study by talking to shoreline residents both online and in person in July.

"It allowed a lot of us to believe at least that we could make an impact in the lives of these people and collect their opinions and show them to the people representing them," said Emma Thomley, a student researcher from Carleton College in Minnesota. 

She said being from outside the region can be seen as an advantage for student researchers.                            

"I think it was good for most of us that we were new to the issue," Thomley said, "so when we were doing the research, we didn't have any prior opinions or bias about what was happening."

Thomley said she was most surprised to find that the attitudes about Plan 2014 were consistent among residents, regardless of how the identified politically.  Plan 2014 was implemented in 2016 by the International Joint Commission (IJC), a U.S.- Canadian panel that makes decisions about water level management on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.

The IJC has consistently maintained that heavy rainfall and the inflow of water from other Great Lakes, not Plan 2014, is the reason for the record high levels on Lake Ontario that led to shoreline flooding in 2017 and 2019.

Eighty-two percent of the 300 residents who took part in the study blamed the controversial lake management plan for the flooding.   Only 7 percent cited changing weather patterns, and 4 percent pointed to high rainfall.

Brian Tomaszewski, an associate professor at RIT's Center for Geographic Information and Science Technology, worked with the students who enrolled in the summer Research Experience for Undergraduates program.  The program focuses on disaster resilience.

Tomaszewski also happens to be a shoreline resident himself. He moved north to Lake Ontario two years ago and noticed while talking to neighbors about the rising lake levels that a theme was emerging.

"Obviously the dominant narrative in this is that it's Plan 2014 is what people are blaming," he said. "But as a research scientist, I put my critical thinking hat on and want to say, 'Well, maybe it's Plan 2014, but what about other factors ... hydrological conditions, outflows from the other Great Lakes?' "

Student researchers said they hope the study can be used to help policy-makers better understand their constitutents. The final study is expected to be published in a few months.