COLUMBUS — Despite concerns raised by two former Republican governors, a controversial bill regulating water withdrawals from the Lake Erie basin is headed for a House vote today.
In a joint letter, former Governors Bob Taft and George Voinovich called the newest bill negotiated between lawmakers and current Gov. John Kasich "a substantial improvement" over the one Mr. Kasich vetoed last year. But they wrote that the latest attempt puts tributaries feeding the lake at risk.
The overall thresholds of water that could be withdrawn from the watershed before a user must seek a state permit are roughly half those previously vetoed by Mr. Kasich and have not drawn much opposition this time around. Instead, the focus has been on the inland rivers and streams within the Lake Erie watershed that encompasses roughly the northern third of Ohio.
Both governors were involved in the development of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact that was approved by eight states and Congress and is supported by two Canadian provinces.
House Bill 473, sponsored by Rep. Lynn Wachtmann (R., Napoleon), is designed to write between the lines of the compact, spelling out how Ohio simultaneously plans to exploit the waters of the most fish-abundant of the Great Lakes for economic benefit while preserving it for future generations.
"Ohio is blessed to border 20 percent of the world's fresh water supply," the governors wrote. "In addition to the significant recreational and environmental benefits of the Great Lakes, we believe this resource gives Ohio a unique economic advantage that will become amplified as water supplies tighten around the world."
The House Agricultural and Natural Resource Committee voted 11-7 along party lines to send the measure to the full Republican-controlled House. It made no changes to the bill on Tuesday.
"When the governor told me he was going to veto [the prior bill], I told him I would make a good bill better," said the committee's chairman, Rep. David Hall (R., Millersburg). "I think we've gone that way."
In their letter, the two former governors urged lawmakers to drop plans to average water withdrawals of high-quality streams over as much as 90 days. They also challenged a provision that would limit those who can challenge the issuance of a permit only to those who can demonstrate a direct economic or property interest in the decision. Critics have argued that leaves out sportsmen, boaters, and others who use the lake for recreational purposes.
"This narrow definition of aggrieved person would set a troubling precedent in Ohio law and eliminate appeal rights for many citizens who utilize the watershed for recreational and other purposes," the former governors wrote.
State Rep. Rex Damschroder (R., Fremont), whose district reaches Sandusky Bay, supported the bill.
"Ohio's No. 1 industry is agriculture …," he said. "I support farmers and I support the industry. … I really don't think anybody knows exactly what is going to happen. The one thing I'm sure of is there's not going to be a rush of new industry drawing out any more water than what they're drawing out today."
As now written, House Bill 473 would allow power plants, manufacturers, golf courses, farmers, water companies, and other users to take up to 2.5 million gallons of water per day directly from the lake and 1 million from most groundwater, rivers, streams, and other inland sources before having to get a state permit. Those thresholds are more in line with those set by other Great Lakes states.
For rivers and streams deemed to be of high quality and with their own watersheds encompassing between 50 and 100 square miles, users could take up to 100,000 gallons a day, as averaged over 45 days, before seeking a permit. The threshold for smaller high-quality waterways would also be 100,000 gallons a day, but there would be no averaging. A withdrawal of 100,000 gallons in a single day would trigger the permitting requirement.
Roughly 153.9 million gallons of water flow into Lake Erie every day from the Detroit River, other tributaries, and rainfall, according to a 2009 report by the International Upper Great Lakes Study Board. That compares to 154.9 million gallons that flow out over Niagara Falls, is lost to evaporation, and is diverted to New York canals.
Critics of the bill argued that allowing withdrawals by averages could place streams at risk as industrial, recreational, and agricultural users make massive withdrawals on a single day but remain under the threshold as averaged over 90 or 45 days.
"Fish and wildlife do not live in averages," said Kristy Meyer, of the Ohio Environmental Council.
The committee rejected two amendments offered by Rep. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo) that would have removed or lessened the averaging for withdrawals from the Maumee River. Rep. Andy Thompson (R., Marietta) noted that the Maumee is not a high-quality river.
"No kidding," Ms. Fedor said. "The Maumee River is the source of the algae bloom, which will have a negative impact on tourism. … This is a no-brainer folks. … We could at least protect the river that needs the most protection."
Meanwhile, the House Finance and Appropriations Committee Tuesday added $3 million to a mid-budget review bill to step up efforts to deal with algae blooms on Lake Erie. Rep. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green) said the money will help to implement some recommendations of a working group led by the Department of Natural Resources.
"This is a way to say we need more information, better information, more monitoring, more testing so that we can begin solutions that clearly and specifically provide for a healthier Lake Erie," he said. "It's an environmental issue. It's an economic issue. It's certainly a jobs issue."
The amendment was unanimously adopted, but the budget bill it was attached to passed the committee by a party-line 20-12 vote with Republicans supporting it and Democrats opposed.
"We weren't able to come up with $6 million for Ohioans who have alcohol and drug addiction programs, but now we're finding $3 million for fish," said Rep. Matt Lundy (D., Elyria).
Like the Lake Erie water withdrawal bill, the budget bill will be up for a vote today before the full House.