Let’s remind ourselves why eight states and two Canadian provinces entered into the Great Lakes Compact in 2005. They wanted to protect a precious natural resource from harmful diversions of water, and set up a sound regimen for using and managing the lakes.
They recognized the economic role the lakes play. Lake Erie supplies drinking water to 11 million people and supports one out of every 10 jobs in the seven Ohio counties that hug its shore. Travel and recreation generate $10 billion annually in the Lake Erie Basin.
Those joining the compact had in mind more than an enduring economic engine. They eyed their responsibility to future generations, honoring the long understood compact between generations to preserve the natural heritage of the lakes.
In doing so, they grasped the fragility of the lakes, the likes of invasive species, advancing algal blooms, “dead zones” and degrading watersheds. Lake Erie is particularly vulnerable, in part, because it is shallower, representing 2 percent of the overall water volume yet containing 50 percent of the fish. Know, too, that the compact is one element in a larger effort, the federal government having embarked on an ambitious and necessary restoration program.
All of this has been pursued in a bipartisan fashion. The administrations of George Voinovich, Bob Taft and Ted Strickland helped to initiate, craft, conclude and begin to implement the compact. That spirit seemed at work when John Kasich vetoed broad implementation legislation last summer. The governor listened to the outcry, Democrats and Republicans, even from other Great Lakes states, cudgeling a bill that flouted the intent and letter of the compact.
In the rewrite, the governor gathered all the stakeholders around the table. He achieved a better bill. A business would be required to enter a permitting process if it withdrew more than 2.5 million gallons a day from the lake, as opposed to the original 5 million. Regulation would be grounded more securely in science. State officials would have more of the required regulatory muscle.
On Thursday, the Ohio House approved this version along party lines. A Kasich spokesman touted an arrival at middle ground, noting the fury of businesses when the governor issued his veto and the anger now from environmental groups.
Kasich must be doing the right thing? Worth recounting are the circumstances of the governor’s veto, portrayed on his part as a courageous stand. Actually, the Kasich team at the Department of Natural Resources gave its approval to the first implementation bill, Republican lawmakers thinking the deal was done. Outrage followed, then came the veto.
The governor had little choice. Now he does, as the bill heads to the state Senate. The concern is that he still doesn’t get the stakes.
Team Kasich has suggested that environmental groups and other critics “keep moving the goalposts,” gaining a concession and then asking for another. As it is, those pushing for improvements, including George Voinovich and Bob Taft, have focused consistently on four items.
The leading concern has been the treatment of tributaries, the legislation reversing current state law and falling short of the compact. The law and the compact require protection for Lake Erie and its tributaries from large water withdrawals. Yet the legislation provides protection only in the frame of Lake Erie.
That overlooks the potential harm in a large withdrawal from a tributary, a dramatically lower water level putting fish at risk or concentrating nutrients that flow into waterways and unleashing algal blooms. The impact may not appear significant to the lake as a whole, yet the state of the lake often can be detected in the more vulnerable areas of the basin.
Among those most worried about the tributaries are the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association and the League of Ohio Sportsmen. The organizations hardly rate as green extremists. They see a fishing industry at risk in failing to recognize the distinct characteristics of all waterways.
Part of the worry about “high quality streams” involves the use of averaging, for 90 days or 45 days, to establish withdrawal rates. The trouble with such averaging is that it makes room for one massive withdrawal and the subsequent harm. In sensitive areas, averaging provides the illusion of protection from a harsh event.
What also has been a consistent concern is the narrow opening for appealing the grant of a withdrawal permit, limited to those with a direct economic or property interest. That shuts the door to boaters and other recreational users. It neglects the notion of the lake as a public trust. So does a loosely constructed experimental permit that invites evasion of the compact requirements.
These items require small yet crucial adjustments in what is simply a permitting process, businesses gulping water in substantial amounts facing oversight. It could be argued that even a slight withdrawal should be a trigger. These are the Great Lakes, fragile now, the compact designed to strike an appropriate balance in protecting a national treasure.
Douglas is the Beacon Journal editorial page editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3514, or emailed at email@example.com.