Ohio lawmakers are proposing more generous water withdrawal limits than other Great Lakes states – an approach that critics say is possibly more dangerous to the health of the watershed.
A set of bills recently introduced into the Ohio legislature would set limits to the average daily permitted withdrawal of water from Lake Erie at five million gallons. The limit would be two million if taken from groundwater within the area draining to the lake. Both the House and Senate versions of the bill currently are in committee.
All eight Great Lakes states are required to mandate water withdrawal limits by the Great Lakes Basin Compact. Each state decides individually what those limits will be. Two Canadian provinces, Ontario and Quebec, also signed onto the compact in a companion agreement to respect Canadian laws.
The limits proposed in Ohio are more generous than those in other states, said Marc Smith, senior policy manager with the National Wildlife Federation.
“States are in all different situations,” he said. “Minnesota, when they passed the compact, already had a very stringent regulatory program in place where you need a permit for 10,000 gallons. That’s really, really strong.”
In Wisconsin, a permit is needed to withdraw more than 100,000 gallons per day from groundwater or more than two million gallons per day from a surface water source.
Michigan requires a permit if a withdrawal would have an adverse impact on a specific water source. That depends on the health of the water source in question, the surrounding area and how many gallons are proposed.
A computerized tool looks at each proposal on a case-by-case basis instead of applying an overall threshold, said Patty Birkholz, director of Michigan’s Office of the Great Lakes, which helped develop the tool.
“We don’t have any limits, like you can only withdraw a million (gallons) a day,” she said. “It’s based on the health of the aquifer so you do not damage it.”
The tool has won Michigan numerous awards for its water conservation efforts and set a model for other states to aspire to, Birkholz said. However, recent budget cuts have left the future of the tool unclear.
Worrying environmentalists in all states is the dramatic difference between the states and the water withdrawal regulations, despite the fact that each affected lake is connected to another.
If a limit is too generous for one state and adversely impacts one lake, that could potentially impact the rest of the Great Lakes and the states that rely on them, Smith said.
“We need to further study what an impact of withdrawals are to the Great Lakes,” he said. “Obviously, that’s a major issue that we need to figure out. This is not Las Vegas. (Water) doesn’t just stay in an area and that’s how we have to look at it. That’s what’s frustrating with some of the legislation coming out of Ohio.”
Tied to that issue is the idea that Great Lakes water is a public resource and thus held in the public trust, said Jim Olson, chairman of Flow for Water. Flow for Water is a coalition based in Traverse City, Mich., that works to ensure Great Lakes water remains public.
“The Lake Erie proposal looks like a business proposal,” he said. “The groundwater, the lakes and streams are all one, so it’s false to talk about them as something separate with separate limits.”
Olson said Ohio’s proposed legislation is shaped more around the business aspect of withdrawal limits and allowing state businesses to take full advantage of the water, rather than looking at the issue from a public trust or water conservation aspect.
Ohio legislators who approve of the proposed five-million-a-day threshold say Michigan’s method will harm businesses that depend on water resources. Birkholz said that if those water resources are depleted with irresponsible use, however, the businesses won’t stand a chance.
“Look at what happened when they declared Lake Erie dead,” she said. “That took millions (of dollars) to rectify, and in the meantime we’re still losing business opportunities because (people) don’t know the water system is healthy again. If we don’t maintain a healthy water system for drinking and use for business and industry we are not going to have a successful state.”
Olson said if Ohio isn’t careful, the generous threshold limits could open the door to exploitation by companies looking to privatize Great Lakes water.
“Once you open the door and companies make investments in Ohio that are relying on these waters, you basically won’t be able to stop it,” he said. “Ohio needs to be very cautious about this. There ought to be major public hearings and whatever is done should be subject to the public trust.”