On Monday, John Kasich declared that he got what he wanted. The governor views the most recent version of legislation implementing the Great Lakes Compact as allowing Ohio to be “both a good steward of the environment and a friend of job creators who rely on the lake.” No question, this rewrite represents a marked improvement over the bill he vetoed last summer. It is the product of broad discussion, the governor bringing all stakeholders to the table.
The improvements start with the lower thresholds for triggering the permitting process for withdrawals from Lake Erie. The earlier bill would have required a permit for daily withdrawals of 5 million gallons or more from the lake, 2 million gallons from major tributaries and 300,000 from high-quality streams. The new legislation reduces the thresholds to much more responsible levels, 2.5 million, 1 million and 100,000, respectively.
Other improvements include grounding the policymaking more securely in science, requiring water conservation programs and adding muscle to enforcement.
Much of the give and take has concerned adequate protection for high-quality streams, which can be jeopardized by steep withdrawals, a negative result rippling through the larger lake basin. The legislation calls for tiers. For larger watersheds, permits would be required at 100,000 gallons daily, averaged over 90 days, then for intermediate watersheds averaged over 45 days. Those watersheds below 50 square miles would require a permit any time 100,000 gallons are withdrawn.
The tiers reflect a further advance. They also invite the question: Why not ensure a greater cushion of protection in areas where the lakes are their most vulnerable, following the counsel of Bob Taft, George Voinovich and others for no averaging on high-quality streams and a 30-day average for other withdrawals?
The point has been persuasively made: Averaging often carries the illusion of protection.
More, the legislation would be stronger if it contained deeper consideration of how the harm to a specific area, a small tributary or other less prominent waterway, can radiate, say, spurring algal blooms, diminishing fish life and recreation. The new bill falls short, too, in limiting appeals of permitting decisions to those with a direct economic or property interest. That excludes those who use the lakes and surroundings for recreation, running counter to the notion of a public trust.
The governor, no surprise, emphasizes the welcome improvements. Is it realistic to think he could have gained more in talks with state Rep. Lynn Wachtmann, who pushed the woeful first bill? Perhaps not. Still, it is worth stressing how this bill could be better, business interests at no significant disadvantage, the state embracing more fully the spirit and purpose of the compact.