Minnesota on Thursday did what many thought Ohio would do: Become the first Great Lakes state to adopt a proposed compact for managing lake withdrawals on a regional basis.
By a 57-3 vote, the Minnesota Senate approved the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact with no amendments. Two weeks earlier, the Minnesota House of Representatives passed it by a 97-35 vote, also with no changes.
Ohio could be poised to follow suit. But first, supporters may have to overcome a property-rights opposition movement mounted by a Cleveland-area Republican senator.
They also have to reaffirm the support of Ohio's industry, which is lobbying to limit regulatory power.
State Sen. Tim Grendell (R., Chesterland) said he will introduce a bill this week that would put a vote on hold for at least a year.
He is calling for the creation of a joint legislative task force that would spend the rest of 2007 listening to what other Great Lakes states say about the proposal. Wisconsin has a similar review under way, resulting recently in a 12-page document of concerns.
No resistance, though, is heard coming from someone who wields great influence: Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland.
His press secretary, Keith Dailey, told The Blade that Mr. Strickland supports what Minnesota just passed: A compact without compromises.
"He supports it as it is written," Mr. Dailey said. "He will direct cabinet members to work closely with it."
Mr. Strickland's position has been seen as a potential wild card since the Ohio General Assembly failed to pass enabling legislation for the compact at the end of former Gov. Bob Taft's administration.
The measure was approved by the Ohio House, but didn't make it through the Senate.
Mr. Taft, a Republican, presided over the compact as chairman of the Council of Great Lakes Governors of Chicago while the proposal was being formed from June, 2001, through December, 2005.
Many thought the measure would pass in Ohio before Mr. Taft left office because it was one of the few highlights of his scandal-ridden administration.
Mr. Grendell said that was never reason enough.
"I'm not against the compact," he said.
"I'm not trying to be an obstructionist. I'm just trying to do it right."
The proposed compact is largely a result of protests that arose in the United States and Canada after the Nova Group of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., secured a permit in 1998 to start filling tankers with Lake Superior water and shipping them to Asia.
Under pressure, the company relinquished the permit.
The Council of Great Lakes Governors spent two years mulling advice about how to close what was seen as a legal loophole before heading on its current path at a 2001 summit in Niagara Falls, N.Y.
In December, 2005, the governors agreed to take a proposal for a regional compact to each of their states, while also signing a nonbinding document of understanding with Ontario and Quebec called the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement.
Binding agreements with foreign countries can't be negotiated by states.
Some said the compact was an easier sell in Minnesota because that state has water-usage laws stronger than what's proposed.
Only 15 percent of Minnesota is in the Great Lakes basin, with Duluth being the only major industrial hub.
Ohio and Wisconsin have more trouble accommodating "straddling communities" - large suburbs just beyond the natural Great Lakes water basin.
Molly Flanagan, of the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes office in Ann Arbor, said Minnesota has set the bar high by going first.
"I think Minnesota's passage of the compact is going to create some momentum," she said. "This sort of takes that fear of going first off the table."
Mr. Grendell, an attorney, said his opposition is centered around a provision that calls for water in the Great Lakes basin to be held in public trust.
He said an Ohio Supreme Court ruling last year affirms that private property owners own groundwater beneath their land.
He also questions whether Ohio would be giving up its sovereign right to Lake Erie's state-owned water by agreeing to be part of a regional water board of eight states.
Northern Ohio has a cold climate, unions, high taxes, and high utility costs.
"But the one thing we've got is water. Why would we want to give up sovereign control to seven other states?" he asked.
Others dispute his claims and are trying to address concerns raised by a consortium of industries called the Coalition for Sustainable Water Management, headed by the Ohio Chamber of Commerce.
The coalition wants the criteria for water withdrawals made by state legislatures, not governors.
It wants permits for withdrawals based upon anticipated effects on watersheds, not individual streams and tributaries within them.
Linda Woggon, the Ohio chamber's vice president of governmental affairs, said the coalition wants the same language it lobbied for when the compact was approved last year by the Ohio House.
"A lot's going to depend on where Governor Strickland is with it," she said.
State Rep. Matthew Dolan (R., Novelty) said he intends to reintroduce the bill this year, although his focus through June 30 will be on the state budget.
He is chairman of the House finance committee.
He called Mr. Grendell's property rights issue "a little overreaching."
State Sen. Doug Spada (R., North Royalton) is expected to reintroduce the measure in the Senate.
Kristy Meyer, the Ohio Environmental Council's Lake Erie program director, said potential bill sponsors have been waiting for a signal from Mr. Strickland's office.
"They want to have his blessing before they go forward," she said.
Before going to Congress, the compact would have to be approved by legislative bodies and signed by all eight governors.
The process could take years. Regional compacts themselves are hard to get through Congress because they ask for the federal government to relinquish control.
The New York State Assembly was the only other chamber to approve the compact during the last legislative session. Like Ohio, the New York Senate failed to act. So new bills will have to be introduced.
Illinois has bills active in both of its chambers.
Indiana has two bills in its Senate.
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