Lawmakers spar over lake waters
By Julie Carr Smyth
Posted on the Times-Gazette (Hillsboro, OH) on February 20, 2008
COLUMBUS (AP) - Ohioans will begin hearing much this week about the issue of preventing Great Lakes waters from being diverted to the water-hungry Southwest. If the debate sounds familiar, it is.
The Ohio House was poised to sign off on a version of the Great Lakes Compact this week that is essentially identical to one it passed last session.
The Ohio Senate, meanwhile, will begin hearings on its own version of the agreement - one that contains a small but crucial wording change that the second chamber says is crucial to securing its signoff on the agreement between lake-bordering states.
Here's the issue: As it now stands, the compact says that all waters with "the Great Lakes basin" should be protected as part of the public trust.
Sounds nice, yes, but some of the Senate's top legal minds say the words open up private property all across northern Ohio to government control. Their argument is that the "basin" includes streams, tributaries and other more minor surface waters that can't be navigated by boat.
State Rep. Matthew Dolan, a Republican who has worked for four years to negotiate Ohio's piece of the compact, simply disagrees. Dolan also believes what seems like a simple word change could have much more sweeping consequences.
That's because some of the Great Lakes states have long ago approved the compact. In other states, the manifesto among Great Lakes governors and affected Canadian provinces is well on its way to ratification. In some places, governors are poised to sign it.
"I believe if it does get reopened, to make that little change that Ohio wants, and other states won't say OK fine, they'll all come back with their own changes," Dolan said. "After four years of negotiation, we'll be back to the beginning."
Sen. Tom Neihaus, who chairs the committee that will hear the Senate's version of the compact, believes the small but critical issue of surface and stream water can be tackled without going back to the drawing board.
"I respect Representative Dolan and all the hard work he's done on this, but I think it's absolutely false that that opens up the negotiation on every other issue," Neihaus said.
Only time will tell. Ohio senators traveled to Traverse City, Michigan, last year to try to speak to representatives of the Council of Great Lakes Governors about their wording worries, and they were shut down. There was no interest in revisiting even the slightest wording change, Neihaus said.
Dolan said that's because much give and take has marked the four years of negotiations on the agreement.
"In four years of negotiations, you can't always get what you want," he said.
Also, the political climate is a worry. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Harry Reid both hail from water-hungry states - California and Nevada, respectively. If the compact were to be reopened to negotiation before it is ratified, Dolan argues, the two could get the Democratic-led Congress to intercede and create national water policy unfavorable to Great Lakes states.
According to a 2000 World Bank study, Americans consumed 291 billion cubic meters of water for industrial use that year, 35.8 billion cubic meters for domestic use, and 120.9 billion cubic meters for agricultural use. A cubic meter of water is equivalent to a little over 264 gallons.
Ohio state Sen. Tim Grendell, a lakeshore lawmaker who has followed the compact issue for years, is incredulous.
"The fear-mongering that this is somehow going to open up the flood gates is unfounded," he said. "We're asking for some minor word changes."
Grendell blames former Gov. Bob Taft, a Republican who led the Great Lakes governors' compact negotiations, for signing off on a flawed document.
"Bob Taft got this passed apparently not recognizing it (this wording issue). Our job is to be a check and balance," Grendell said. "When the governor negotiates a flawed document, I submit that legislators have the fiduciary duty to correct that, not to rubber stamp it."
The infighting in Ohio has caught the attention of other Great Lakes states, which last week expressed support for Dolan's position: Wording changes mean returning to the drawing board.
Taft's successor, Gov. Ted Strickland, is trying to remain open.
While he has publicly supported the compact as written - and as passed last session by the House - his spokesman says he is still open to working with lawmakers on their differences.
Julie Carr Smyth is a writer for The Associated Press.