Ohio close to approving water deal


In the waning days of his scandal-ridden administration, Gov. Bob Taft will likely walk away with one of his most coveted political victories in hand: Legislative support for a proposed regional water compact that would give the eight Great Lakes states unprecedented power over the lakes.

With reluctant support from industry, the Republican-controlled Ohio General Assembly is on the verge of endorsing the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact.

The plan won t take effect unless it is endorsed by the region s seven other states and, in turn, ratified by Congress. The latter could take years.

But the proposed interstate compact could mean billions of dollars to the region by locking down its greatest resource: water.

It would establish a regional water board to regulate Great Lakes water withdrawals.

Advocates say that water will become increasingly vital to the Great Lakes region s economy and well-being as thirsty parts of the nation struggle to meet their future water needs.

In an Oct. 6 interview, Gover-nor Taft said that getting Ohio to sign off on the proposed interstate compact was one of my two or three [remaining] legislative priorities.

It is the product of seven years of negotiations among Great Lakes governors and their aides.

The Ohio House tomorrow is expected to approve it.

The Ohio Senate s Environment and Natural Resources Committee has scheduled a hearing on it for Wednesday afternoon.

Ohio and New York are vying to become the first state to throw its political weight behind the proposed compact.

New York s State Assembly passed it June 23. Its Senate is to consider it soon. Bills also have been introduced in Michigan and Illinois.

Compacts among states are rare because they ask the federal government to relinquish power.

But in 1999, Great Lakes governors were advised by lawyers to start working on a new plan to ward off other diversion and bulk-export threats.

The legal advice came months after officials had barely coaxed an Ontario company, the Nova Group, to relinquish a permit it had obtained in 1998 to ship tankers of Lake Superior water to Asia.

Peter Annin, author of a new book called The Great Lakes Water Wars, said governors have been trying to shore up a 1985 charter against more diversions, which he described as a gentleman s agreement because it is not binding.

Details of the proposed water compact s status created a buzz at Friday s sixth annual Great Lakes Water Conference, sponsored by the University of Toledo s College of Law.

Mr. Annin spoke at that event, as did Mr. Taft s outgoing state Department of Natural Resources director, Sam Speck.

Mr. Speck was the governor s point man for the interstate negotiations, chairing a working group formed by the gubernatorial council.

Assisting him in those negotiations was state DNR water chief Dick Bartz.

Mr. Speck and Mr. Bartz told The Blade that Taft officials now, with industry s support, see no roadblocks in getting the Ohio General Assembly s support.

Governors huddled in a series of meetings over two years before meeting in Niagara Falls, N.Y., in June of 2001 for what was known then as Annex 2001, a proposed amendment to the 1985 charter.

Mr. Taft and New York Governor George Pataki, who leave office in January, are the only two governors left from that summit.

At that meeting, Mr. Taft was named the gubernatorial council s chairman.

The annex evolved under him into today s proposed interstate compact, as well as a nonbinding agreement drafted to include Canada s two Great Lakes provinces, Ontario and Quebec. Both were unveiled at a summit between Great Lakes governors and premiers in Milwaukee last December.

The largest withdrawal from the lake system is the one in Chicago from Lake Michigan, in which the Chicago River was reversed in 1900 because raw sewage had become stagnant.

Mr. Speck said Illinois would not have participated if the Chicago diversion had not been exempted from the proposed compact rules.

That was especially hard for the Canadians to accept, Mr. Speck said.

He was alluding to one of Canada s largest citizen groups, the Council of Canadians. It has accused Great Lakes governors of creating too many exemptions for communities in their own states, especially water-poor ones that lie just beyond the natural basin line.

A page on the group s Web site, updated Nov. 10, cited the Chicago diversion and said the current proposal continues to threaten the health of the Great Lakes and significantly weakens Canadian sovereignty over these shared waters.

It said, though, that the current plan is an improvement over the first version.

While U.S. environmentalists have been largely supportive, industry had some reservations as recently as last month because of what it saw as potentially restrictive measures on development.

Linda Woggon, Ohio Chamber of Commerce vice president of governmental affairs, said at the conference that industry believes it has succeeded in getting its two biggest concerns addressed through additional language put into the bills.

The Coalition for Sustainable Water Management, an industry group that Ms. Woggon represents, wants changes to the criteria for water withdrawals made by state legislatures, not governors.

Congress gave Great Lakes governors veto authority for diversions in 1986, under the Water Resources Development Act.

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

Both sides said they re ready to move forward, even if such matters require further clarification.

Ms. Woggon and Kristy Meyer of the Ohio Environmental Council and Molly Flanagan of the National Wildlife Federation, said they expect the Ohio General Assembly to pass the bills.

The coalition Ms. Woggon represents includes the chamber, the Ohio Manufacturers Association, the Ohio Petroleum Council, and the Ohio Chemistry Technology Council.

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com or 419-724-6079.