Nice save, guv.
But I’m still embarrassed to be a Buckeye.
And, no, not because former Ohio State University football coach Jim Tressel allowed his squeaky-clean image and his impressive gridiron legacy to become tarnished overnight.
I’m embarrassed to be a Buckeye because of how the Ohio General Assembly made a mockery of one of the most serious problems facing the Great Lakes region and tried to exploit it for the short-term benefit of some influential business lobbyists.
I’m embarrassed to be a Buckeye because I live in a state where a majority of legislators made meager political gains tantamount to the well-being of future generations, ignoring what they were doing to the world’s largest collection of fresh surface water and failing to recognize how this economically distressed region of 40 million United States and Canada residents must unite on several key issues relative to the water, starting with excessive withdrawals.
Compact not perfect
The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact, often called simply the Great Lakes compact, is hardly the Mother of All Regional Water Compacts or close to anything perfect.
Even the environmental community is split on it.
While the National Wildlife Federation, the Ohio Environmental Council and other groups campaigned vigorously for it, the Sierra Club declined to take a position, in part because of concerns raised by the Council of Canadians (see below).
Traverse City water rights attorney Jim Olson and, more visibly, author-activist Dave Dempsey have taken an ardent view against it.
In several interviews and self-penned articles over the years, Dempsey – an environmental adviser to former Michigan Gov. Jim Blanchard and a Clinton appointee to the Great Lakes Fishery Commission – has expressed great opposition to a loophole the bottled industry negotiated that allows for Great Lakes water to be removed from the basin en masse so long as it’s in containers smaller than 5.7 gallons, or 20 liters.
His thoughts of the compact being too weak fell on deaf ears with most area members of Congress, but not retired U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, who represented Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, current U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Toledo and current U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Cleveland. All three are Democrats with staunch environmental views who cited that loophole as reasons for voting against the compact when Congress approved it and President Bush signed it into law in 2008.
Canadian paranoia well-founded
I’m embarrassed to be a Buckeye because, in retrospect, I must give one of Canada’s largest activist groups credit for being spot-on with what many people here in the United States wrote off as Little Brother Paranoia from our neighbors to the north.
Deep into the compact negotiating process several years ago, former Ohio Department of Natural Resources Director Sam Speck and Dick Bartz, his agency’s water division chief at the time, told me how they were practically tarred and feathered at one public meeting in Toronto (figuratively, of course) while trying to explain the intent behind the compact.
They admittedly were blindsided by the Council of Canadians and its belief that the compact was just a ruse for the U.S. to ultimately allow for more withdrawals from Wisconsin and Ohio. Speck and Bartz, the two most important behind-the-scenes players in the compact negotiations, said it was an eye-opener that taught them how many Canadians are suspicious of our country’s motives.
Rightfully so, thanks to the Ohio General Assembly’s putrid House Bill 231, which inexplicably got passed and made its way to Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s desk.
The Ohio governor had until today to sign or veto it or it would become law on its own under the state constitution. He wisely broke from Republican ranks and vetoed it last Friday.
If it had become law, Ohio businesses would have been allowed to drain Lake Erie to the tune of 5 million gallons a day and take up to 2 million gallons a day from groundwater that replenishes the lake. In other words, virtually unrestricted use of a globally important resource.
Water’s increasing value
Spend five minutes doing online research of the Aral Sea and you’ll learn nothing in life is permanent, even a lake. Water is becoming incredibly more valuable.
Ask Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute and Peter Gleick of the California-based Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security.
The two have stated the “era of endless fresh water is coming to an end.”
Ask Maude Barlow, who in 2008 was named by the United Nations as its first senior adviser on water issues. She told the Society of Environmental Journalists in the fall of 2009 that the world’s dwindling supply of water is “the greatest ecological crisis of our time.”
“This global water crisis is coming upon us; I don’t care where you live,” Ms. Barlow said. “The world is going to change very quickly over this water crisis.”
Everyone knows a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
Same goes for a chain of lakes.
When one state such as Ohio essentially opens the spigot, water that serves the whole region flows out.
So is the compact an end-all?
Hardly. But it is a logical framework to build upon.
It grew out of a failed 1998 effort to ship Lake Superior water to Asia, headed by a small Ontario firm called the Nova Group. That case showed the Great Lakes Council of Governors how vulnerable the region had become to the growing threat of water exports – that is, having water treated like a commodity and traded in international markets.
Fears of that occurring have existed since at least the 1950s and led to a non-binding charter among Great Lakes governors in 1985.
One problem with that agreement is it didn’t include Canada.
The compact doesn’t technically include Canada. It can’t, because states are not allowed to enter into treaties with foreign countries. But there is a non-binding companion document – a gentleman’s agreement, if you will – that Great Lakes governors signed with Ontario and Quebec in December of 2005 as they signed the compact and pledged to work with their individual states to ratify it.
What ultimately was ratified by the states and signed by President Bush three years later was then subject to state-by-state enacting legislation.
That’s when the shenanigans resumed in Ohio.
Now is not the time to change fundamental concepts
When the compact was being ratified in 2008, Ohio legislators locked horns over private property rights. This time around, House Bill 231 gutted the intent of the compact and made it an over-the-top soft piece of industry legislation under the guise of our region’s collective water rights being a “Jobs Bill.”
Although the great baseball sage Yogi Bear was right when he coined the phrase “It ain’t over ’til it’s over,” enacting legislation is usually just a time for tweaking and fine-tuning a general principle that had been hammered out earlier by the states and signed into law by the president – not overhauling the fundamental concept.
Former Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, who was at the helm of the Council of Great Lakes Governors when the compact was under development at the gubernatorial level of each state from 2001 to 2005, urged Kasich to veto House Bill 231, as did Taft’s predecessor, retired U.S. Sen. George Voinovich.
Both are Republicans who preceded Kasich in Columbus. Taft said Ohio was setting itself up to be sued by the other Great Lakes states for weakening the compact.
Several officials in Michigan and New York also expressed their dismay, as did the editorial boards of major news organizations.
So Kasich did the only thing he could do without subjecting Ohio to a likely lawsuit from other Great Lakes states, not to mention more political embarrassment.
Yet his veto – the first of his administration – was hardly in the bag. As Toledo Blade editor David Kushma suggested in a July 10 column, the Kasich administration seems hellbent on a revolution for the rich and isn’t taking prisoners.
“During their first six months in office, the new governor and GOP-controlled legislature have launched a radical — and, I’d argue, damaging — transformation of state government,” Kushma wrote.
I don’t want to get all wrapped up in wonkish, arcane documents – and the Great Lakes compact, like other regional water-use agreements, is about as wonkish and arcane as they come.
But as I said, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
Same goes for a chain of lakes.
Broad implications for region’s recovery, development
Noah Hall, a Wayne State University Law School associate professor and founding executive director of its Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, has told me the compact goes beyond its stated purpose.
In a broader sense, Hall argues, the Great Lakes region may never unify itself and take full advantage of its potential if it can’t even come together around the simple concept of reasonable water usage.
An interesting thought, especially considering that a year-long study the Brookings Institution released a few years ago said that the only way for the Great Lakes region to return to its Industrial Revolution glory days as an economic powerhouse is to form stronger linkages as a region.
So it’s back to the drawing board for the Ohio General Assembly, with fingers crossed that Gov. Kasich will continue to surprise his critics and show he’s not willing to sacrifice Lake Erie, even if it means offending the business lobbyists who form his base of support.
And let’s hope the message gets through to legislators. The Ohio General Assembly could vote to override Kasich’s veto. Sixty representatives originally voted for the bill in the House, the exact number needed for an override, and 28 senators supported it in the upper chamber, where just 20 are needed.