What were ya thinkin', Lee?
Environmentalists bit their tongues and gave Ohio Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher a free pass for his outlandish speculation Monday that the Buckeye State - someday - might actually commit a 180-degree policy reversal and sell Great Lakes water to thirsty parts of the country instead of fighting to keep it here.
Their tongue lashing was noodle-like for one reason: fear of jeopardizing support from Mr. Fisher's boss, Gov. Ted Strickland, on the proposed Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact.
The proposed compact, which would forbid large-scale diversions and bulk exports of water without approval from a regional governing board, has the potential to be an historic water-management accord among the eight Great Lakes states. Business, government, and environmental interests delicately negotiated it over four years with help from the public at large. Governors took it to their legislative bodies in December, 2005.
It attempts to close legal loopholes exposed in global trade laws after the Canada-based Nova Group tried sending tankers of Lake Superior water to Asia in 1998.
Its origins go back to former President Ronald Reagan's first term, when Great Lakes governors saw how much money was being spent on federal projects in the booming Southwest.
In 1985, Great Lakes governors met on Mackinaw Island to sign what effectively became a nonbinding gentlemen's agreement against such diversions. The compact now under consideration is an attempt to strengthen that.
Four of the eight Great Lakes states have ratified and signed the proposed compact into law.
Mr. Strickland has pledged support for a ratification bill the Ohio House passed Feb. 19 by a 90-3 vote. Activists such as Jerome Tinianow, Audubon Ohio's executive director, now demand - rightfully - that Mr. Strickland show his mettle on this issue.
All eyes now are on the Ohio Senate, where an 11th hour, renegade bill has emerged in the name of private property rights.
Neither the Council of Great Lakes Industries nor the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, both of which represent many of the region's largest employers, support that bill, sponsored by state Sen. Tim Grendell (R., Chesterland).
They're both on record - in spirit at least - in support of the House version. Translation: While they aren't doing cartwheels, they agree the House version is a workable compromise.
So along comes Mr. Fisher, stunning those at a Toledo economic development meeting by saying future Great Lakes water sales can't be taken off the table.
First, that's a heck of a Supreme Court challenge waiting to happen even if, for some bizarre reason, Ohio ever really tried to do that. For the record, Mr. Fisher called here the following day to say he misspoke. Translation: The governor got mad at him.
Mr. Fisher's quip was simply bad politics. A slip of the tongue. An off-the-cuff remark when he wasn't fully versed on the issue. Or (let's hope not) worse.
Politicians from Duluth to Quebec have known for years just how sensitive Great Lakes water is. It's the backbone of our economy, depressed as it is. Every inch counts for Great Lakes shipping, energy production, and even walleye fishing, not to mention drinking water.
The proposed compact was written to help the eight Great Lakes states assert regional control over the world's largest source of fresh surface water while the Earth's climate is rising, its population is expanding, and water shortages are becoming more acute. In a word, water is our future.
Mr. Fisher should have known better.
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