By Kristy Meyer
That swoosh sound that you heard at the end of June was not the sound of state lawmakers’ high speed exit for the summer from the Capitol in Columbus. On the contrary, it was the Ohio General Assembly’s partisan decision to open the spigot to massive, uncontrolled water withdraws from Lake Erie and Ohio’s inland lakes, rivers, and groundwater that drain to Lake Erie.
Last month, the Ohio House and Senate rushed to jam through a complex piece of legislation that, in theory, complies with the Great Lakes Compact.
Incredibly, Ohio, which has the shallowest sections of the smallest, most productive, and most vulnerable Great Lake, has just adopted the weakest, least protective water use protections.
In their haste, GOP lawmakers cast aside the warnings of former Govs. Bob Taft and George Voinovich, former Natural Resources Department director Sam Speck, and several scientists that the flawed plan could invite lowered water flows in the inland lakes, rivers, and ground water that drain to Lake Erie. This, in turn, risks concentrated pollution levels which can result in increased harmful algal blooms, fish habitat degradation, and impacts to sport- and commercial-fishing.
The end result, scientists warn, could be a long-term threat to our Great Lake Erie’s fragile ecosystem and the people, wildlife, and tourism industry that depend upon a healthy lake.
Signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2008, the Compact was a model of bipartisan cooperation. Its approval represented the culmination of nearly a decade of give and take amongst the eight Great Lakes governors, the premiers of Ontario and Quebec, and leaders from a wide array trade and interests groups, including manufacturers, agriculture, utilities, bottlers, commercial and sport fishers, travel and tourism, and the environment.
At the heart of the Compact is an intertwined pair of fundamental objectives: a prohibition of any diversion of water outside of the Great Lakes basin and the conservation and sustainable use of water use within the basin.
A huge drain
Under the bill, a water user would only have to seek a state permit when a factory, mining operation, or other use tapped more than 5 million gallons of water a day from Lake Erie, 2 million gallons from a river or groundwater source, or 300,000 from a designated high-quality stream.
Ohio lawmakers had a choice; alternative bills by Rep. Dennis Murray (D-Sandusky) and Sen. Mike Skindell (D-Lakewood) proposed science-based standards to strike a balance among all water users. And Ohio lawmakers had the time; federal law gives each Great Lakes state until 2013 to pass laws to enforce provisions in the Compact.
To their credit, Youngstown area Reps. Ronald Gerberry, Robert Hagan, Tom Letson, and Sean O’Brien and Sens. Capri Cafaro and Joseph Schiavoni opposed the flawed bill their Republican counterparts insisted on shoving through.
Governor John Kasich could still reject the one-sided plan the legislature has sent to him and insist on a balanced plan that will ensure adequate supplies of clean water for productive use, both now and in the future.
Kristy Meyer is director of Agricultural & Clean Water Programs for the Ohio Environmental Council in Columbus.