Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher yesterday said he misspoke when he said Great Lakes water might someday be sold to drought-stricken parts of the country.
The lieutenant governor surprised Lake Erie shoreline officials Monday by suggesting such sales may need to be contemplated as water shortages become more acute. His comments were made at an economic development summit in Oregon.
Mr. Fisher said last night he was quoted correctly in a front-page article that appeared in The Blade.
But, he said, "I should have been more careful in my comments about diversion because I should not have left even a crack in the door for diversion in the future."
Mr. Fisher said he and Gov. Ted Strickland support the proposed Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact, which would prohibit diversions and bulk exports of water unless approved by a regional governing board.
The compact's goal is to unify Great Lakes states on water-usage issues and assert regional control over the world's largest collection of fresh surface water.
State Rep. Matt Dolan (R., Novelty), sponsor of two Great Lakes compact bills approved by the Ohio House, yesterday expressed disappointment in the remarks Mr. Fisher made on Monday.
"Selling Lake Erie water will deplete the waters of the lake - crippling our shipping, fishing, and tourism industries in the state and leaving future generations with the dilemma of depleted resources in our future," according to a statement attributed to Mr. Dolan.
Two lobbyists familiar with the proposed legislation showed empathy for Mr. Fisher in their responses yesterday.
Linda Woggon, vice president of government affairs for the Ohio Chamber of Commerce and chief spokesman for the industry consortium Coalition for Sustainable Water Management, said she has no doubt the Strickland administration is "strongly supportive of the compact."
"Industry has a tremendous stake in having water here," she said.
Molly Flanagan, Great Lakes water resources program manager for the National Wildlife Federation, said she thought Mr. Fisher's comment about selling the water "was an April Fools' joke."
She said she remains "comfortable" with the Strickland administration's level of support for the proposed compact.
Ms. Flanagan said she believes Mr. Fisher was simply trying to make people aware of the need to protect the lakes, given the inevitable pressures they will face.
"It looked like he was acknowledging this idea that water shortages are only going to worsen [and] that this is an issue we should be prepared to address," she said.
But not all were so forgiving.
"I think the truth of the matter is if they believe in the compact, they should do everything they can to make that happen. We will find out where they stand in the next few weeks," said Oregon activist Sandy Bihn, the Sierra Club's western Lake Erie conservation chairman and founder of the Western Lake Erie Waterkeeper Association.
Jerome Tinianow, Audubon Ohio's executive director, reiterated a plea he made at the University of Toledo water seminar last fall, when he called on Mr. Strickland to "elevate the profile of this issue."
Last night, Mr. Tinianow said the governor should send Mr. Fisher to testify at upcoming Ohio Senate hearings, rather than Ohio Department of Natural Resources Director Sean Logan.
He said the governor "needs to elevate this issue to speak in the strongest terms in uncompromising support of the compact."
That includes opposition to competing legislation that was introduced by state Sen. Tim Grendell (R., Chesterland).
Several groups, including the Council of Great Lakes Governors, say Mr. Grendell's bill threatens to unravel years of work that went into the proposed compact.
"One of the things he should say is the Grendell bill will be vetoed," Mr. Tinianow said.
Four Great Lakes states have ratified the proposed compact.
It needs to be ratified by the other four before it can be sent to Congress for federal approval.
Last night, the governor reiterated his opposition to diversions or bulk transfers of lake water.
"I would oppose efforts to divert water from Lake Erie and will pursue that position vigorously," he said in a statement.
The governor said he believes people who have fled for the Southwest in recent years will come back "because they will be thirsty."
Mr. Fisher said Monday the administration's first priority is to get the proposed compact through both chambers of the Ohio General Assembly.
But he went on to say that the demand for Great Lakes water could rise as an issue on the national agenda in the next five to seven years, and the Great Lakes states should decide if, when, and how out-of-state sales might be done.
He suggested it would be "selfish" to refuse to provide water to other areas that need it.
"That is not to say that the Great Lakes region some day might not make the public policy decision that we need to help our brothers and sisters around the country," he said Monday.
Yesterday, Mr. Fisher's comments and tone had changed in a statement he sent to Great Lakes supporters:
"I have always opposed, and our administration opposes, Great Lakes water diversion to other states."
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