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Progress on water legislation stagnates

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Ten months after Great Lakes governors came together in Milwaukee to assert regional control over the lakes, none of the states has followed through with legislation for Congress to ratify.

The sluggish pace itself hasn't fazed those familiar with the issue, given the complexity and politics of water laws.

But some people have grown weary of Ohio industry's hard-line position on two points dealing with water withdrawals from the lakes - one which affects decision-making power and the other that could broaden the definition of eligibility.

Critics call it an 11th-hour gamble that threatens to unravel five years of work Gov. Bob Taft's administration undertook with the Great Lakes business community at large, plus all levels of government in the United States and Canada, as well as tribal leaders, environmentalists, and legal scholars.

Now, with each Great Lakes state except Indiana having a gubernatorial election next month - and a minimum of two new governors on tap - some wonder what the future holds for the proposed Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact.

"Yes, that's part of the complication of an interstate compact," Mr. Taft told The Blade on Friday, referring to the turnover.

If passed by each state legislature and ratified by Congress, the compact would establish a regional board to oversee major water withdrawals in hopes of guarding the highly coveted resource and diffusing conflicts over it.

Interstate compacts are agreements among groups of states. They are difficult - though not impossible - to get approved by Congress because of what they ask the federal government to do: relinquish power.

The broad goal of this compact would be to fend off massive lake diversions and bulk water exports that may arise if global water shortages become as acute as projected.

Great Lakes governors once thought a nonbinding 1985 charter was enough. But a Canadian firm called the Nova Group exposed the region's vulnerability in 1998 by obtaining a permit to ship tankers of Lake Superior water to Asia. Officials negotiated back the permit.

Governors - acting on legal advice - then sought a binding compact to help close legal loopholes. They concurrently negotiated a nonbinding agreement with Canada's two Great Lakes provinces. Both were signed in Milwaukee in December.

Ohio took the lead under Mr. Taft, who was the Council of Great Lakes Governors chairman throughout the negotiations. Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, the current chair, is among those up for re-election Nov. 7.

Mr. Taft and Gov. George Pataki of New York are not seeking rel-election. They are the only two left from the group of governors that met in Niagara Falls, N.Y., in June, 2001, to start negotiating the proposed Great Lakes resources compact.

Mr. Taft said it would "be a real mistake" if Ohio's business community forced the compact to be reopened by the gubernatorial council.

"It's one of my two or three highest legislative priorities to get these bills enacted before I leave office," he said, referring to what was introduced in both chambers of the Ohio General Assembly this year.

Ohio House Speaker John Husted (R., Kettering) is "committed to addressing it" after the election, spokesman Karen Tabor said.

Linda Woggon, Ohio Chamber of Commerce vice president of governmental affairs, said Ohio businesses are on board with the compact's general theme because industry needs water.

Failing to assert regional control over the Great Lakes could deplete this region of its greatest drawing card, she said.

But industry does not want to "turn the lakes from an economic advantage to disadvantage," said Ms. Woggon, who also represents the Coalition for Sustainable Water Management. That consortium includes the chamber, the Ohio Manufacturers Association, the Ohio Petroleum Council, and the Ohio Chemistry Technology Council.

Ohio industry wants any criteria changes for water withdrawals to be made by the state's legislature, not a future governor. "We think it's pretty important. Otherwise, you're giving an extreme amount of authority to whoever is going to be the governor in the future," Ms. Woggon said.

The coalition wants permits for withdrawals based broadly upon anticipated impacts to watersheds, not individual streams and tributaries within them.

"The idea behind the compact is not to have an impact on the Great Lakes basin. We agree with that," Ms. Woggon said. "But, at the same time, it's not about stopping all development and stopping all projects."

Both concerns could be addressed through changes to Ohio's proposed legislation, with the hope that other states would follow suit, she said.

George Kuper, president and chief executive officer of the Ann Arbor-based Council of Great Lakes Industries, agreed. He said industry wants the compact, but doesn't want to litigate its details.

Kristy Meyer of the Ohio Environmental Council said industry "had every opportunity to comment" before governors took the proposed compact to their state legislatures.

"Now, we'd just be opening it up to an all-out, free-for-all again," she said, explaining how compromises were made to keep Canada and all the states in the fold.

"Clearly, there's a need to pass it as is and deal with implementing language later," Ms. Meyer said.

Her view was echoed in a Sept. 27 letter that Molly Flanagan of the National Wildlife Federation wrote to state Rep. Matthew Dolan (R., Chardon), the House bill's primary sponsor.

"For anyone to say that they did not have an opportunity to comment or that their comments were not heard is disingenuous," Ms. Flanagan wrote.

Mr. Taft's second term has been marred by the investment scandal involving former Toledo-area coin dealer Tom Noe, plus a conviction on an ethics charge. But industry and environmental groups praise him for sticking by the compact.

"He could have gone away and he didn't," Mr. Kuper said. He said Mr. Taft is "deserving of the honor to have [passage] done during his tenure."

Mr. Taft said Ohio's passage would "be an important part of the legacy of our administration."

"It's something that will pay dividends and bear fruit for decades to come," he said.

On June 23, the New York State Assembly became the first legislative body to pass the compact. The measure hasn't passed that state's Senate.

David Naftzger, Council of Great Lakes Governors executive director, said he's not surprised by the pace. He said he expects more state legislatures to take up the compact in 2007.

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.

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