Egregious Ohio water law takes backseat at Great Lakes Week
Opportunistic moments come rarely and Great Lakes advocates missed the chance to take advantage of one during the recent Great Lakes Week 2012 in Cleveland.
The spotlight was on Ohio, including significant TV coverage, for this confluence of the region’s environmental movers and shakers.
But the advocates failed to address the elephant in the room.
That’s the issue surrounding Ohio’s weak and permissive water conservation law. It is a law that weakens and could potentially derail the Great Lakes Compact, arguably their biggest accomplishment.
In 10 years there have been two Great Lakes issues that generated sustained regional and national media coverage: passage of the Great Lakes Compact and the Asian carp phenomena.
The compact prevents water-needy regions from tapping the Great Lakes and more importantly requires us to conserve it for future generations. The Asian carp advance caught the attention of the country and has put a spotlight on a host of Great Lakes problems.
While other issues may have local or regional importance, they’re not on the national radar.
Confluence of conferences loses sight of big issue
Big conferences usually have a theme or signature issues and this year’s Great Lakes Week was no exception.
It featured Lake Erie’s algae problems and a newly minted water quality agreement between the U.S. and Canada. Also in the spotlight was an ill-conceived attempt to secure a Great Lakes commitment from presidential candidates.
It was a seminar called Ohio and the Future of the Great Lakes Compact put on by the environmental coalition Healing Our Waters.
Former Ohio governor Bob Taft was the featured presenter. He was joined by Kristy Meyer from the Ohio Environmental Council and Chris Evans an editorial writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Representatives from business and Ohio’s legislature, both key players in developing Ohio water law, were not on the panel.
Ohio’s legislature had passed the required bill and it was a terrible piece of legislation.
It was largely written by business interests and was sponsored by state Sen. Lynn Wachtmann who has direct ties to the bottled water industry. That’s the epitome of a conflict of interest though Wachtmann has told the Plain Dealer it isn’t.
Among its lowlights was an allowance for the most liberal water withdrawal amounts in the region. It stopped citizens from appealing permit decisions, which hardly aligns with Ohio’s public trust doctrine.
Essentially it was a de facto water privatization bill that served the interests of business and industry and ran counter to the letter and the spirit of the Great Lakes Compact.
Outrage ensued from within Ohio with measured protests coming from Michigan and other states. Ohio Gov. John Kasich was pressured to veto the bill and he did.
The saga didn’t end there as the legislature replaced the original terrible bill with a bad one, sent it to Kasich and he signed it. It minimally lowered the threshold amount of water that industry can take before needing a permit and other bad aspects of the bill remain.
The presenters at the Great Lakes Week seminar used most of their time to recount how the compact and the new law came to be. In short, it was more of a victory lap for a past accomplishment instead of focusing on the future.
The Ohio Environmental Council’s Meyer, to her credit, touched on the need to stay close to the Ohio DNR which will make the rules to permit water withdrawals.
The council’s website is more forceful, saying the new law is without precedent and it effectively bars citizen involvement from an appeal process. The environmental group also labeled the bill a “radical move toward privatizing Ohio’s water and natural resources.”
The Healing Our Waters Coalition did not respond to requests to comment.
Weak in Ohio means weak everywhere
Meyer said for the near term she’ll “focus on the rules” the Ohio DNR must draft as part of the permitting process. She wants to make sure they are as protective as possible under the circumstances.
But that won’t be enough.
It will be a tough slog to have an impact on a state agency’s rulemaking. That’s like signing a contract to buy a house then saying you want to negotiate the price.
A stronger approach is needed.
The same groups who fought hard to pass the compact need to reconvene and fight the battle for Ohio’s water and to protect its integrity.
If the compact is weak and permissive in Ohio, it can be weak anywhere. And there is another test coming soon. Waukesha, Wis., is on the cusp of filing its long awaited, controversial and precedent-setting diversion request.
It will be difficult to take a tough stand in Wisconsin if Ohio continues to get a pass.
The compact advocacy groups include the Great Lakes Commission (governors), the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative (mayors) and the National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Alliance for the Great Lakes, Great Lakes United and other members of the Healing Our Waters Coalition.
They should do more than just support Ohio groups from afar.
They need to:
- Make a regional commitment to secure a new implementing law in Ohio that meets both the letter and spirit of the compact.
- Lobby the other seven governors and the two Canadian provincial premiers demanding that they pressure Ohio to come into compliance.
- Make a big deal about it with the media as they did when promoting the compact’s passage.
That’s a fool’s errand you may say as governors are not likely to pressure a colleague, especially if they’re from the same party. I disagree. It’s better to have tried and failed than to have done the minimum and risk an unraveling of the landmark water conservation agreement.
In his presentation, Ohio’s Taft noted that Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels is the only Great Lakes governor in office when the compact was signed and he’s leaving in January.
The current class of governors needs to have a stake in conserving Great Lakes water and take ownership of the compact for it to be effective. Holding Ohio to account would allow them to do that and if they don’t, you know where they stand.
I can hear the rumblings now saying that I should get in touch with reality, the Ohio fight is over. I’d counter that by noting there were serious doubts years ago that the states and provinces could agree on a complex water conservation deal, but it happened and became law.
Until a few years ago talk about re-reversing the Chicago River was the stuff of pipe dreams pondered by idealists who were out of touch with reality. Now serious people in positions of responsibility including legislators are beginning to grapple with that very issue.
To not make the best effort to reverse Ohio’s egregious water law would be akin to stopping on the five yard line of a long football run and saying you’d done enough, no need to cross the goal line.
And here’s the beauty of it, it doesn’t cost anyone any money. It takes only the courage to make the effort to protect and preserve Lake Erie, its tributaries and all of the Great Lakes.
That’s what Great Lakes advocates in Cleveland said they wanted to do, right?