In July, John Kasich vetoed harmful legislation designed to implement the Great Lakes Compact. The governor joined in opposition two former governors, Bob Taft and George Voinovich, plus his counterparts in New York and Michigan and a wide range of conservation and environmental groups. The task became crafting a better bill, the state with a December 2013 deadline for action.
The governor deserves credit for convening a process that has been inclusive and productive, pushing the state much closer to meeting its responsibility to protect the Lake Erie basin from excessive and unsustainable withdrawals of water. Yet now he must press harder to ensure that legislation proposed last week by state Rep. Lynn Wachtmann doesn’t fall short, Ohio with an obligation to its partners, the other Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces.
Wachtmann surprised the governor’s office and other stakeholders with his unveiling of the bill. Perhaps his move amounts to a declaration that he has compromised enough. He led the effort to enact the earlier, flawed bill.
Certainly, the improvements achieved in the governor’s process are present in the legislation. It rightly scales back from 5 million gallons a day to 2.5 million gallons a day the amount of water that can be withdrawn from Lake Erie before facing state permitting requirements. It takes similar steps regarding withdrawals from ground water, rivers and “high quality” streams flowing into the lake. It gives necessary authority to the state Department of Natural Resources to develop rules to enforce the compact.
A further improvement involves basing the management of Lake Erie basin water in science. That may seem obvious. It wasn’t a sufficient part of the vetoed legislation.
Still, a few additional steps forward are required to complete the task the governor has launched.
Wachtmann wants to retreat from current law that requires the protection of both Lake Erie and its tributaries from large water withdrawals. Fail to erect safeguards for specific tributaries, as the bill does, and the whole becomes more vulnerable, a steep withdrawal, say, feeding algal blooms.
The proposed legislation bars anglers, boaters and other recreational users from appealing a decision about a withdrawal or other water use. Only those with an economic interest could appeal. That runs contrary to the counsel of the state attorney general’s office, which rightly understands that the lake is a public trust.
Wachtmann calls for measuring withdrawals on the basis of a 90-day average. Unfortunately, that leaves room for a single, huge withdrawal, potentially putting at risk fish and other aspects of the ecosystem. The attorney general advised that a per-day measure would be more effective.
Address these shortcomings, and Ohio would have legislation matching the intent and spirit of the compact. No question, the lake serves as an economic engine. Yet that economy includes recreation and travel amounting to $10 billion annually. Most of all, the lake is a precious resource, a national treasure, reflecting our duty to each other and as stewards who will give way to new generations. John Kasich correctly seized the moment to start again. The shame would be letting the opportunity slide, fudging on the crucial detail.