Lake Erie water withdrawal bill clears House


COLUMBUS -- A business-backed bill to regulate water withdrawals from Lake Erie passed the Ohio House along party lines Wednesday as Republicans characterized it as the proper balance between the state's economic and environmental needs.

Democrats, however, charged that, while much better than a bill that Gov. John Kasich vetoed last year, House Bill 473 falls short of protecting the rivers and streams that feed the lake and serve as spawning waters for its fish.

The bill passed by a vote of 59-38. The debate shifts to the Senate.

"I'm frankly sick of those who accuse people in the business community [of being] anti-environment, anti-Lake Erie, and things like that," said Rep. Lynn Wachtmann (R., Napoleon), the bill's sponsor. "Simply not the case…

"It is important to know that current water withdrawals and use by businesses, as well as the public at large, have not been shown to create any problems … in the Lake Erie watershed at this point," he said. "Today, on an average day, we're withdrawing a billion gallons less a day than we did a few years ago."

The bill is backed by Governor Kasich, the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, manufacturers, and the petroleum, chemical, soft drink, and mining industries.

It still faces opposition from environmental, sportsmen, and recreational groups and former Republican Govs. Bob Taft and George Voinovich.

This time it isn't the total thresholds for water withdrawals drawing opposition. The new thresholds are roughly half of what they were in the bill Mr. Kasich vetoed and largely in line with what other states have adopted.

But the bill's opponents argued it focuses on adverse impacts to Lake Erie as a whole instead of localized impacts on rivers and streams from withdrawals by power plants, farms, manufacturing plants, water companies, and golf courses.

They also oppose a provision limiting who can appeal permit decisions only to those who can show they have direct economic and property interests, preventing challenges from anglers, boaters, swimmers, and others who enjoy the waters.

Rep. Dennis Murray (D., Sandusky), who lives on the lake, described the view from his window last year.

"Green, filled with algae, looked and sounded like an oil spill," he said. "This is a personal issue for me … We are literally sitting on pins and needles expecting that we are going to have another horrific algal bloom this summer. All the signs point in that direction."

Republicans rejected his proposed amendment to give those who use the water, and not just those with a direct economic or property interest, the ability to challenge permitting decisions.

"It's kind of a heads I win, tails you lose for those who have less than an economic interest -- let's say a recreation interest or sportsmen interest…," he said.

The bill would allow water 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.

For rivers and streams deemed to be of high quality and having their own watersheds encompassing 50 to 100 square miles, users could take up to 100,000 gallons a day, as averaged over 45 days, before seeking a permit.

But there would be no averaging period for smaller high-quality waterways.

A withdrawal of 100,000 gallons in a single day would trigger the permitting requirement.

If Ohio doesn't enact its water management rules by late 2013, default standards would take effect, limiting withdrawals to 100,000 gallons per day.

A separate House budget bill approved Wednesday and sent to the Senate would provide $3 million for a new Healthy Lake Erie Fund designed to fight algal growth endangering fish, recreation, and related sports and tourism jobs.

The money, attached to the bill by Rep. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green), will be used for additional testing, monitoring, and other recommendations from a working group led by the Department of Natural Resources.