Don’t drain the lake

6/26/2011

How's this for a winning strategy to create jobs and promote economic growth in Ohio?

Risk dangerously low water levels and quality in Lake Erie — the shallowest of the Great Lakes — and its tributaries. Jeopardize the $10 billion a year in revenue, the 250,000 jobs, and the tourism, boating, fishing, and recreational industries that the lake contributes to the Ohio economy.

Aggravate pollution — including toxic algae blooms — in Lake Erie and the rivers and streams that feed it. Threaten the supply of drinking water for 3 million Ohioans.

Shift costs for water and wastewater treatment from big businesses to smaller businesses and consumers. Defy the spirit, and probably the letter, of the Great Lakes Compact, an agreement by eight states, Congress, and Canada to protect the lakes from excessive withdrawals and manage them wisely for future generations.

Sound good? Want to sign up? Contact your nearest Republican state lawmaker.

A bill rammed through the state House last week on a party-line vote, and similarly fast-tracked for Senate passage this week, would allow businesses to withdraw as much as 5 million gallons of water a day from Lake Erie without even getting a state permit. No other Great Lakes state has such a high threshold for regulation of water use; under Ohio’s current limit of 2 million gallons, more water already is withdrawn from Lake Erie than any of the other Great Lakes.

The measure also authorizes unregulated withdrawals of 2 million gallons a day from inland streams and rivers in the watershed, and 300,000 gallons from small, high-quality streams. It seems likely that corporate-friendly state regulators would not balk at business requests for even greater withdrawals.

The sponsor of the House bill, state Rep. Lynn Wachtmann (R., Napoleon), insists it appropriately balances environmental protection with “the cost of doing business.” Mr. Wachtmann, who owns a company that draws water from the Lake Erie watershed, calls opponents of his legislation “fear-mongering” alarmists who would rather watch manufacturing plants close than allow them “insignificant” withdrawals.

Actual environmentalists and scientists say the bill lacks overall water-conservation guidelines and seeks to isolate Lake Erie from broader management of the Great Lakes basin — a violation of the compact’s regional emphasis. That approach, the Ohio Environmental Council argues, “leaves Ohio vulnerable to litigation by not upholding our binding contract with the other seven Great Lakes states ... a waste of precious and scarce taxpayer dollars.”

There’s a better alternative. A measure sponsored by state Rep. Dennis Murray (D., Sandusky) would regulate water withdrawals on the basis of science, not lobbyists’ preferences or lawmakers’ efforts to make up numbers as they go along. Other states, including Michigan, have done that.

But the legislative majority here isn’t interested. House members also brushed aside proposed amendments to the GOP bill that would have created the nuisance of public review of the legislation’s effects.

Former Republican Gov. Bob Taft, a leader in developing the Great Lakes Compact, says the water bill goes too far. Former GOP Sen. George Voinovich has asked the Senate to postpone its vote. But don’t worry: If lake levels get low enough, it might become easier for oil and natural-gas operators to drill in Lake Erie — something else GOP lawmakers have shown they don’t feel compelled to prevent.

The water-withdrawal bill seems likely to become law because, for now, Republicans have the votes to do pretty much whatever they want. That may not always be the case, if the Ohioans who hired the politicians responsible for this and other extremist legislation are paying attention.