Ohio legislators just signed off on what critics call the weakest water protections in the Great Lakes region.
The hotly contested legislation, passed Tuesday by the Ohio Senate, allows unregulated water withdrawals of up to 5 million gallons of water per day from Lake Erie, 2 million from groundwater and 300,000 from sensitive streams – the highest thresholds in the region.
The General Assembly approved the bill last week. It awaits action from the governor.
Critics, including two of Ohio’s former governors, say the rules weaken the 2008 compact among Great Lakes states to protect regional waters.
But supporters say less restrictive water rules will attract people and business to Ohio.
Environmental groups and other advocates say the legislation fails to assess cumulative impacts of water withdrawals and to use science to set limits.
“The bill has gone too fast through the process,” said Sara Gosman, National Wildlife Federation attorney and water policy expert. “Folks have not had the chance to stop and think about what’s best for the Ohio’s water resources protections and commitments under the compact.”
State Sen. Timothy J. Grendell told his colleagues Tuesday that the new rules protect the Lake Erie watershed as required by the compact and afford Ohio citizens and businesses “reasonable right to use of their water.”
“We can do both, we can protect the environment and we can also make sure that jobs are protected and economic growth is protected,” Rep. Lynn Wachtmann, who co-introduced the legislation with Grendell, testified to the Ohio General Assembly last week.
The Coalition for Sustainable Water Management, a group of water-reliant industries in support of the legislation, did not return phone calls for comment.
Ohio is one of the last states to implement the rules required by the compact.
Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and New York start regulating water uses at 100,000 gallons per day. Minnesota has the lowest permitting threshold at 10,000 gallons per day; Michigan uses an assessment tool that screens out withdrawals that would have a negative impact on the environment starting at 100,000 gallons per day.
Indiana also requires water users to seek a state permit at 5 million gallons per day of lake water, but limits for specified salmon streams and groundwater are lower at 100,000 gallons and 1 million gallons respectively.
Officials in other states bordering Lake Erie aren’t saying much about Ohio’s move.
The New York agency in charge of implementing the compact declined to comment.
Ohio’s action is on the radar of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, said Patty Birkholz, director of that state’s Office of the Great Lakes.
“You can’t have an ecosystem that’s as delicately balanced as the Great Lakes be at risk,” Birkholz said. “You do that if you don’t acknowledge the uses and continuing uses that are occurring.”
Critics say Ohio should require environmental impact assessments more frequently than every five years to adequately identify threats to water levels and aquatic wildlife.
It’s not clear if Ohio Gov. John Kasich will sign the bill. If he doesn’t, state lawmakers will have to try something new.
“I know how legislation moves and it changes sometimes dramatically before it’s actually adopted and goes through the entire process,” Birkholz said.
Watch Tuesday’s Senate debate here.