Great Lakes accord must still navigate rough waters


It boggles the mind that Ohio legislators spent 2 1/2 years tinkering with the proposed Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact before ratifying it Tuesday.

The eight-state agreement could go down in history as one of the most important of our era.

Look at Atlanta. The West. The Middle East. China. India.

Water is more coveted everywhere. Even here in the Great Lakes region, battles are brewing over irrigation, shipping, mining, hydroelectric power, and bottled water.

Do we need to worry that China and India - two of the world's most populous and most rapidly developing countries - are running dry? Or that the State Department has looked at water scarcity in the Middle East and other parts of the world as a national security issue?

Maybe not this minute. But where do you draw the lines between fear, paranoia and responsible planning?

The compact was proposed by Great Lakes governors in December of 2005, under the direction of former Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, as an historic water-usage agreement among the eight Great Lakes states. Its purpose, simply, is to show the region can be a responsible steward of Great Lakes water before the federal government takes control of the resource - which, of course, could still happen.

Legislation to ratify the agreement is top-heavy in legalese. It has tested the patience of policy wonks while boring the layman. The compact has its flaws, depending on whom you speak with. It hasn't been especially fun to write about. That means it probably isn't the favorite thing for people to read about, either.

So what? The lay public rarely sweats every detail. Nor should it. We pay public officials to represent us to the best of their abilities.

I don't mind that state Sen. Tim Grendell (R., Chesterland) and his posse of Republicans formed a political blockade against Senate ratification until their concerns about private water rights were addressed, even though several experts in water law have told me such concerns are unfounded.

The same issue hasn't taken on the same prominence elsewhere, which should raise a flag. But which one? Mr. Grendell has been either a skillful obstructionist or a savvy negotiator. He had every right to raise objections, air a debate, and stubbornly insist the Ohio House put his proposal for a constitutional amendment on the Nov. 4 ballot for voters to decide. That's democracy.

What I'm getting at is why it has taken so long, Mr. Grendell or not.

Fears of outsiders getting to Great Lakes water are rooted in engineering plans going back to at least the late 1950s. They manifested themselves at the state executive level in a 1985 gentlemen's agreement among Great Lakes governors, as well as the following year when Congress gave governors their current veto authority against diversions.

The issue resurfaced 10 years ago, when the Canadian-based Nova Group wanted to export Lake Superior water to Asia. Governors were advised to close legal loopholes. The current plan for doing that began with a gubernatorial summit in Niagara Falls seven years ago this month.

So what now?

On Wednesday, the day after the Ohio Senate ratified the compact, former Michigan Govs.William Milliken, a Republican, and James Blanchard, a Democrat, released a bipartisan statement calling for Michigan's legislative leaders to be more sensitive about how the public trust principle can be applied to Michigan waters.

And the compact, assuming it clears its final hurdle in Pennsylvania, will face an uphill battle in Congress - one that could become tougher as water becomes more scarce.