COLUMBUS -- As a state senator, the current director of the Michigan Office of the Great Lakes helped to write her state's law implementing a lakes-protection compact that was signed by eight states, two Canadian provinces, and Congress.
Now Patricia Birkholz is watching the progress of a fast-tracked bill in Ohio that would set water-withdrawal thresholds more than double those set by the Wolverine State, a move she believes violates the compact's terms.
The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact "only allows numbers to be greatly higher in the case of catastrophic emergency," Ms. Birkholz said.
"That means a huge worldwide drought, which is why the compact took us a few years to vet, negotiate, and renegotiate," she said "The governors went back a couple of times, went out to public hearings, and then went back to the drawing board."
The legislation is headed for a House committee vote next week and could reach Gov. John Kasich's desk before lawmakers recess for the summer by month's end.
The House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee revised the bill last week but did not adjust the water-withdrawal thresholds that exceed those already adopted or are under consideration by the other Great Lakes states.
The bill and a similar Senate companion would allow a permit holder to withdraw up to 5 million gallons of water a day directly from Lake Erie before facing restrictions.
The threshold would drop to 2 million gallons if the water is taken from the ground or other inland sources and drop to 300,000 if taken from streams deemed to be of high quality.
Currently, Ohio requires anyone consuming 2 million gallons or more to simply register with the state.
Michigan's law allows up to 2 million gallons a day to be drawn directly from the Great Lakes and ties withdrawals from groundwater supplies to the rate at which that source replenishes itself.
Indiana has adopted thresholds for Lake Michigan that rival Ohio's proposals for Lake Erie, but Indiana's are lower when it comes to withdrawals from the watershed beyond the lake itself.
House Bill 231 is being pushed by the Coalition for Sustainable Water Management, which includes the Ohio, Toledo, and Cleveland chambers of commerce; manufacturers, and the chemical, petroleum, mining, and soft-drink industries.
"It is pretty clear, in trying to pass the compact, that it gave states flexibility and autonomy," said the coalition's Jenn Klein.
"We are a heavy-manufacturing state, and that takes a lot of water. We want to maintain those industries as well as promote further growth and economic development," he said.
"This is a tool to bring business and industry into the state," she said. "The big thing that gets lost in all of this is that business and industry need water for everything we do. We would not support for a second something that we thought would deplete or diminish it for existing users or for future growth. We have to have it."
The Great Lakes compact, aimed at protecting against raids of the waters from other parched states or countries, does not provide specific withdrawal numbers, but provides a general framework within which states must operate.
The compact gave states five years from its adoption to enact their rules. Failure to enact regulations would result in a default threshold of 100,000 gallons a day.
Cause for concern
Some states, including Michigan, tackled their rules simultaneously with the compact's adoption. Ohio and New York are late to the dock.
"The [Ohio] numbers are higher than Michigan's, and that leaves me to be concerned," said Ms. Birkholz, a Republican living in the southwestern portion of the state near Lake Michigan. "Even more important, it's my understanding that it's higher than what the compact allows," she said. "If you signed the compact, as all states have, as two provinces have, and as Congress has ratified, then you have a legal obligation to adhere to the compact."
"It does not envision huge amounts of withdrawals," she said. "If you go above and beyond the compact numbers, then you're required to take it back to all of the states."
Questions about bill
In a hearing last week, Rep. Rex Damschroder (R., Fremont), a committee member, questioned whether the bill would give the state a competitive advantage.
"We are losing jobs to other states in the Great Lakes region. I think that's been proved," Mr. Damschroder said. "If we are losing those jobs, I want to be sure we have an equal or even better ability to attract businesses to Ohio. If larger water drawings will let us do that, then let's go to the max of what's legal under the compact."
He said he's unsure whether the current proposal so far fits that criterion, but he said he's been assured that Ohio would have a chance to revisit the issue if it doesn't.
Still, he said he hasn't made up his mind on the bill.
A deadline for proposed amendments has been set for Monday, with a committee vote possible as early as Tuesday. That would send the bill to the full House.
Rep. Dennis Murray (D., Sandusky) recently introduced a competing bill that is backed by environmental groups who say House Bill 231 adopts arbitrary numbers not based on the ability of the lake and its rivers, streams, and aquifers to replenish themselves.
Mr. Murray's bill would set thresholds at 2.5 million gallons a day if the water is taken directly from the lake, 500,000 if taken from groundwater supplies, and between 10,000 and 1 million gallons from river watersheds, depending on their size and quality.
Mr. Murray said he had hoped revisions accepted by the committee last week would have moved the bill's numbers closer to his, but instead he said the bill stepped "sideways."
"There is no scientific basis for any of this stuff for the rivers, bays, and waters that feed into Lake Erie," he said. "You have a dead lake if you have dead streams and rivers. … They say we comply with the Great Lakes Compact simply because we say so."
The House bill is sponsored by Rep. Lynn Wachtmann (R., Napoleon), who owns a water bottling company that takes water out of the watershed. He said his sponsorship of the bill has nothing to do with his business.
"I'm proud of the jobs I create in northwest Ohio," he said. "Show me a legislator who doesn't use a toilet who lives in the watershed. Does The Toledo Blade use water? It has something to do with every business that gets water. I'm a pro-business legislator, and this bill does more to protect Lake Erie than current law does."
Contact Jim Provance at: email@example.com or 614-221-0496.