US Army Corps of Engineers
Institute for Water Resources

Shared Vision Planning


Lake Ontario St Lawrence River Study

In 1962, the IJC approved the current management regime for the system. The management regime consists of Regulation Criteria (essentially, water level and flow targets) and a regulation plan, which consists of mathematical rules for calculating releases. The IJC also formed the joint U.S.-Canadian International St Lawrence River Board of Control, which is composed of engineers and other technical water professionals and is charged with making weekly decisions about how much water to release at Moses-Saunders Dam. In making release decisions, the Board of Control relies on the current official regulation plan (called “1958-D”), but it also has the flexibility to deviate from the plan as conditions warrant. When the Board of Control deviates from the regulation plan it typically uses the broader regulation criteria in its thinking.

The current Regulation Criteria and Regulation Plan for Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River were formulated to serve primarily three purposes: hydropower, commercial navigation and water supply. In addition, the criteria and plan were required to help prevent flooding and other extreme conditions faced by shoreline property owners.  Over the years, the economy and social drivers within the region have changed and new interests have emerged that are not well served by the current management regime.  These new interests are recreational boating, environmental preservation and, to some degree, changing priorities among shoreline property owners. In order to address these needs, in 2000 the IJC initiated the International Lake Ontario – St. Lawrence River Study. This five-year effort is a collaboration between experts, stakeholders, and policy-makers covering all the interests and potential impacts of water levels management. The primary purpose of the study is to develop new regulation criteria and design a new regulation plan. Shared Vision Planning is being utilized to structure the study.


A Study Board, composed of policy-makers, engineers, environmental scientists and other experts and stakeholders, manages the study. In addition, by the end of the effort, the Study Board will have to make a decision about recommendations to the IJC on potential new criteria and a regulation plan. They will do so based on research and modeling being done by several committees.

Six technical work groups (TWGs) composed of subject matter experts and stakeholders are conducting original research to evaluate the impacts of water level management on six interest areas:

  • Coastal Property Owners
  • Commercial Navigation
  • Environment
  • Hydropower
  • Municipal and Industrial Water Users
  • Recreational Boating.

In addition, another expert committee of engineers and scientists is studying hydrology and hydraulic processes to support the work of the other groups.

Although many stakeholders, whether experts or advocates, participate by being part of a TWG, the Study Board also needed a way to involve the general public. Therefore, the study formed a Public Interest Advisory Group (PIAG) made up of people are who have some interest in how water levels are managed within the system but are generally not technical experts. PIAG counts among its membership a mayor of a town in New York, a dentist, environmental activists, property owners from throughout the system, members of local boating associations and other interested individuals. The job of PIAG is to consult with the general public throughout the basin and communicate the views of the general public to the Study Board. In order to ensure a high level of involvement within the study, two members of PIAG are also members of the Study Board and so they participate in decisions about the study process, budget and final recommendations. PIAG is represents “Circle C” within Shared Vision Planning’s Circles of Influence framework.


A Plan Formulation and Evaluation Group (PFEG) is coordinating the work of the expert groups and organizing the study around the typical rational planning process, similar to the process usually used within the Corps of Engineers. In addition, PFEG is collaborating with the TWGs to build a shared vision model that addresses all of their planning objectives. The Shared Vision Model contains the following:

  • Simulation of the various regulation plans including the current 1958-D;
  • Simulation of the resulting water levels and flows throughout the system;
  • Calculations of how well the plan meets various water level and flow targets;
  • Calculations of hydropower production and associated economic benefits;
  • Calculations of economic damages/benefits to the recreational boating industry;
  • Calculations of economic damages/benefits to the commercial navigation industry;
  • Calculations of risks to water supply and potential costs associated with those risks;
  • Calculations of potential flooding damages throughout the system;
  • A separate module to simulate water level and flow impacts on ecosystem functions; and
  • A separate module to calculate erosion impacts and associated damages.

The PFEG has worked very closely with each of the expert groups to shape their research and to develop ways for incorporating their results into the shared vision model. The PFEG has emphasized the need to focus the research on issues that decision-makers will need to consider in choosing new criteria and a new regulation plan for the system. The key is to make sure that all interests affected by water levels and flows are studied and incorporated into the shared vision process. There are many important water issues within the Lake Ontario basin, but not all of them are affected significantly by water levels.

The shared vision model has evolved over the life of the study. Initial “mock” models using old or even fabricated data were developed to initiate communication between the PFEG and the TWGs. Subsequent versions of the model have incorporated more and more real data and have provided a tool for PFEG and the TWGs to (1) refine the on-going research; (2) build trusting partnerships among planners and stakeholders; and (3) focus the study on the issues that really matter to decision-makers, stakeholders and the public.

As of January 2005, the shared vision model was nearly complete.  The model is constructed of the following components:

  • A Control Panel in Microsoft Excel – this is where users can set parameters for management options (see Figure 1).
  • A Data Warehouse in Microsoft Excel – this piece of the model contains all input data (inflows and other hydrologic variables) and is linked with the control panel and the simulation portion of the model.
  • A Simulation Model built in STELLA dynamic systems software – the simulation takes inputs from the Data Warehouse and options chosen in the Control Panel and performs all the necessary hydraulic calculations and calculates most of the economic impacts (see Figure 2).
  • A Flooding and Erosion Prediction Module – this is a separate module that runs from the control panel based on simulation results from the STELLA model.  It was built separately because the complexity of erosion processes required a stand alone model.
  • An Integrated Ecosystem Response Model – this evaluates all the environmental impacts and is separated from the STELLA simulation because of its complexity.
  • A Post Processor built in Microsoft Excel – this piece of the model pulls all the results together to calculate and display various statistics and tradeoffs based on the various outputs (see Figures 3a and 3b).

All six components are linked and share data.  Changes can be made – for example., different options chosen or new plans formulated – and the simulations can run in a matter of minutes with results fully analyzed and displayed in the Post Processor.

Figure 3a.  Using a “Radar” diagram in Excel Post Processor to display tradeoffs among criteria for two alternatives (pre-project and 1958DD) based on outputs from the Simulation Model, the Flooding and Erosion Prediction Module and Integrated Ecosystem Response Model. Figure 3b.  Graphical comparison in Excel Post Processor of benefits from various alternatives for various stakeholder groups based on outputs from the Simulation Model, the Flooding and Erosion Prediction Module and Integrated Ecosystem Response Models

Lessons Learned

A primary focus within the Lake Ontario Study has been to utilize an iterative planning process. PFEG has developed several versions of the shared vision model allowing one version to evolve into the next based on feedback from the TWGs, PIAG and the Study Board. Further, several times throughout the study, PFEG has facilitated decision workshops. These workshops have varied in content and format, but the basic idea has been to guide the Study Board through decision exercises based on whatever data and modeling existed at the time. In other words, the Study Board considered existing information at the time, deliberated, and decided what its recommendations would be if the study had ended at that time.

This has been done for a variety of reasons. One reason is that the amount of information that has to be considered is extensive. The research being conducted is new and it takes a lot of effort to become familiar with all of it. Using an iterative process allows the Study Board and other participants in the study to learn about the research more fully. And it also forces the Board to consider the research results in a decision context, which helps them recognize if there are problems such as missing pieces (things they care about that aren't being studied) or useless results (things they don’t care about that are being studied). 

Another reason this iterative process is helpful is that it helps the Board, stakeholders and PIAG form their opinions slowly. Typically, people don’t know exactly what they think or how they will decide. Simply providing decision-makers with mountains of data at the end of the study and hoping they will be able to pick the “best” option is unrealistic. By taking the board and other participants through many “draft” decisions over several years, they begin to gain more confidence in their understanding of the issues and become better able to make truly informed decisions. Based on early decision workshops, the Board decided that it needed some framework for evaluating water management options. They developed “Guiding Principles,” which describe their agreed upon priorities and objectives. These Guiding Principles were then used by PFEG to shape the way modeling results were presented to the Board. Using the Principles to guide subsequent “draft” decisions made the board realize that they needed to revise the Guiding Principles. This process has continued and will conclude with a decision workshop.