House Lawmakers Vote On Great Lakes Compact Compromise

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A satellite image shows a massive algae bloom in Lake Erie's western basin. Scientists have linked algae to water withdrawals, pollution, and farm runoff.(Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
A satellite image shows a massive algae bloom in Lake Erie's western basin. Scientists have linked algae to water withdrawals, pollution, and farm runoff.(Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Lawmakers could vote tomorrow on legislation enacting a multi-state agreement that safeguards the Great Lakes from massive withdrawals of water. This is a compromise to keep the Governor from vetoing it again, but that doesn’t mean everyone’s OK with it.

Lawmakers on the House Agriculture committee voted strictly along party lines to approve the deal that would put into effect in Ohio the Great Lakes Compact, an agreement signed in 2005 by eight states and two Canadian provinces seeks to protect the Great Lakes from massive withdrawals of water. This is the second time around for the Great Lakes Compact legislation – last year’s try earned lawmakers the one and only veto that Gov. John Kasich has issued.

There have been some changes to the bill, but most supporters who liked it before still do.

Larry Antosh from the Ohio Farm Bureau said the bill accomplishes the objectives of the Compact and promotes stewardship of Ohio’s water resources.

“Ensuring a safe, sustainable supply of water to meet the needs of today’s and future generations, protects existing private property rights associated with surface and ground water, and promotes economic development and job creation by recognizing that abundant fresh water is a highly desirable commodity,” Antosh said.

The bill cuts in half the amount of water that can be taken from Lake Erie 2.5 million gallons without a permit. But most environmental activists say the Ohio proposal doesn’t do enough to safeguard the tributaries and streams that run into Lake Erie.

And some are very concerned about provisions allowing for withdrawals to be capped but averaged not daily, but over as long as 90 days. Sam Speck was the director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources for eight years under Republican Gov. Bob Taft.

“Over 90 days is a total of nine million gallons you could take, and the way it’s currently written, you could do all that in one day. And of course that’s a way in which you could destroy a stream or the fishery in that stream,” Speck said.

That’s never happened before and is extremely unlikely, says the Republican lawmaker who worked with Gov. Kasich on this compromise – Rep. Lynn Wachtmann of northwest Ohio.

“The fact is that in Ohio’s history, we’ve never had a single problem with that. And up until now, there has been no regulation in Ohio except for reporting withdrawal. So the lies being told by some of the environmental groups that we’re repealing safeguards in place is simply that – a lie,” Wachtmann said.

But Jack Shaner with the Ohio Environmental Council says just because it’s never happened before doesn’t mean it couldn’t now, for one big reason – fracking.

“Well, look out, you’re going to see that now with the oil and gas industry. You know, we’ve never seen these kinds of withdrawals concentrated – and these are in parts of the state with very low water resources to begin with, over there in eastern Ohio,” Shaner said.

But Ag committee chair David Hall of Millersburg in northern Ohio – near where some fracking activity has been going on – says he’s not worried about drillers pulling millions of gallons of water from vulnerable streams.

“They’re working with a lot of cities right now – the potential of using city water and using the untreated water first. So I don’t see that being an addressed issue that we need to look at.”

Environmental activists are also very concerned about a provision of the bill that limits who can challenge the state over permits. The bill allows only water users who can prove an economic or property injury related to a withdrawal to appeal permits – not those who use the water for recreation or other activities. Former ODNR director Speck says he thinks if the bill passes, that will end up in court.

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