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Published: Thursday, 4/10/2008

Wisconsin leaders reach deal on water compact

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Wisconsin legislators yesterday took major steps toward settling a proposed interstate agreement designed to set up a blockade in the legal system for Great Lakes water.

An Ohio lawmaker who has opposed the compact in its present form indicated a willingness to seek a compromise.

The proposed Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact is the most aggressive water-rights legislation the region has considered to thwart threats from the Southwest and other parched areas.

It was presented to state legislative bodies by the region's governors in December, 2005.

Wisconsin legislators are expected to ratify it April 17 during a special legislative session.

Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle yesterday called for that session after learning the Wisconsin Assembly had resolved its issues with the proposal.

Mr. Doyle said he will sign it into law that day.

It earlier passed the Wisconsin senate.

In Ohio, the plan's fate appears to depend on either its current level of support in the state Senate, or an amendment to the state Constitution that voters might be asked to approve in November.

State Sen. Tim Grendell (R., Chesterfield), the leader of Ohio's opposition movement, told The Blade that he and state Sen. Mark Wagoner (R., Ottawa Hills) will seek a constitutional amendment that would declare groundwater and other nonnavigable water, from isolated wetlands to inland ponds, the property of respective landowners and not subject to the public trust of the state.

Mr. Grendell said common law precedent supports that idea.

He said he and Mr. Wagoner will finalize wording over the next three weeks before asking the Ohio General Assembly to place the question on the November ballot.

A three-fifths majority is required from each legislative chamber to do that.

Mr. Grendell said he would drop a bill he recently introduced in the Ohio Senate to revise the proposed compact if voters pass his proposed amendment.

He also said he would throw his support behind original compact language the Ohio House passed by a 90-3 vote in February.

Four of eight Great Lakes states have ratified the proposed compact's original language.

Wisconsin would be the fifth, said David Naftzger, executive director of the Council of Great Lakes Governors.

The gubernatorial council has come out against Mr. Grendell's competing bill, claiming it threatens to undo seven years of negotiations.

Yesterday's developments were significant because the Wisconsin Assembly and the Ohio Senate have long been viewed as the region's wild cards on the issue.

Leadership from those two legislative chambers had been working together until recently, with the Wisconsin Assembly contemplating a bill similar to Mr. Grendell's.

The Wisconsin Assembly had a change of heart, after agreeing to address its concerns through state legislation that would come later, Mr. Naftzger said.

He said he was not familiar with Mr. Grendell's proposed amendment, other than to say, "It's encouraging legislators are looking at options on how to pass the compact without changing it."

Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner weighed in by expressing his gratitude to Wisconsin and urging Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland to step up on the issue.

"Fresh water is becoming an increasingly important national resource as cities and states in the South and in the Sun Belt find their water supplies dwindling," Mr. Finkbeiner said.

"With demand for potable water increasing all over the world, the cities and states of the Great Lakes basin must act together to assure we protect our greatest economic and environmental resource," he said.

Mr. Grendell said his "issue has never been to hold up the compact. My issue has been to make sure it doesn't interfere with Ohio [private] water rights."

Two environmentalists who have been lobbying in support of the proposed compact said they'd take a look at Mr. Grendell's offer - but said they are wary that it's a delay tactic.

"I don't know why we keep addressing his concerns. When is the Ohio Senate going to step up and pass this compact? I think the time is now," Molly Flanagan, Great Lakes water resources program manager for the National Wildlife Federation, said.

Mr. Grendell's new strategy seems to contradict with sponsor testimony he delivered just last week to the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, said Jerome Tinianow, executive director of Audubon Ohio.

Text that was prepared for that April 2 hearing by Mr. Grendell's office warns that the U.S. Supreme Court has declared "that an interstate compact even rules over state constitutional rights."

Mr. Grendell's previous testimony makes his new proposal "suspect to say the least," Mr. Tinianow said.

"It appears it's just another delay tactic," he said. "For him to trot out a constitutional amendment and demand that environmentalists get on board is just pure hypocrisy."

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.



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