COLUMBUS - The Ohio Senate unanimously agreed yesterday to put the question of water property rights directly before voters, breaking a logjam that long has blocked ratification of the multistate Great Lakes compact.
Ohio is expected next week to become the seventh state to ratify the landmark agreement uniting eight states in opposition to diversion of Great Lakes water to other parched areas of the country.
"[Water diversion pipelines] sound far-fetched today, but as world population continues to grow, as we see the onset of global warming and climate change, there's going to be more pressure on freshwater,'' said Jack Shaner of the Ohio Environmental Council.
"We are sitting here on the doorstep of one out of every five fresh surface water gallons in the entire world, so we need to do what we can to protect it,'' he said.
Environmental groups struck a compromise with Sen. Tim Grendell (R., Chesterland), who almost single-handedly has stood in the way of Senate ratification of the compact for about three years amid concerns it could undermine private property owners' right to "reasonable'' use of water on their property.
The question will appear on the ballot on Nov. 4.
The House has twice passed the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact in identical form without Senate action.
Yesterday's vote on the separate constitutional amendment is expected to put the compact on track for passage next week before lawmakers recess for the summer.
That would leave Pennsylvania as the sole straggler. Michigan joined the team last week.
"In a perfect setting, we had hoped to change the language in the compact,'' Mr. Grendell said. "But understanding the complexity of trying to get seven other states to do that, we have looked to see if there's a practical way of addressing that concern here in Ohio.'"
The House is expected to agree next week to place his proposed constitutional amendment on the Nov. 4 ballot, essentially writing into the Ohio Constitution private-property water rights that already have been recognized by the Ohio Supreme Court.
The amendment would state that private property owners have a protected property interest to the "reasonable use'' of the water flowing on and under their properties.
"We will build a firewall against any future effort to use the 'held in trust' language of the compact to create uncertainty or to assail private water rights of Ohioans in the Great Lakes basin,'' he said.
To ensure that, the effective date of the compact is expected to be changed to Dec. 8, one week after the effective date of the constitutional amendment, assuming that the voters approve it.
Mr. Shaner said his group actively will support the amendment. He noted it will clarify that "these waters - groundwater, well water, or nonnavigable water as in a pond or tiny creek on someone's land - are not in the public trust. Nonetheless, the state retains the authority to regulate its use so that we can't have abuse, overuse, or degradation of those waters. It's a good balance.''
U.S. Sen. George Voinovich (R., Ohio) applauded the vote.
"In the nearly four decades that I have spent working on restoring and protecting the Great Lakes, I have not seen a more comprehensive management strategy than the compact that the Ohio State Senate has before it today,'' he said.
As of yesterday, the compact was awaiting a vote in Senate committee. House Speaker Jon Husted (R., Kettering) also has questioned the need for the constitutional amendment, but has expressed a willingness to pass it in conjunction with the compact.
"I don't have a problem with passing the constitutional amendment,'' he said.
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