Ohio: The Great Lakes Compact Is Not a Smorgasbord

Three weeks ago, NRDC released a report detailing states’ progress in implementing the water conservation and efficiency requirements of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Water Resources Basin Compact.  We singled out the excellent work done by Ohio’s Compact Advisory Board to meet those requirements, even though the Ohio legislature hadn’t acted on the Board’s recommendations.

Well, the Ohio legislature acted.  Not only did it ignore the water conservation and efficiency recommendations of its own Advisory Board, but it sent legislation to Governor Kasich’s desk that threatens some of the key provisions of the Compact.

The legislation, House Substitute Bill 231, attempts to rewrite sections of the Compact, including the water conservation and efficiency requirements.

But the Compact isn’t a smorgasbord – states can’t pick which parts they’ll follow and which they’ll ignore.  For example:

  • The Compact requires that states consider physical, chemical and biological impacts to a potential withdrawal of water, recognizing that each of these processes impact the other.  The Ohio legislation allows only physical impacts to be considered.
  • The Compact recognizes the importance of using sound scientific principles in measuring impacts from water withdrawals and consumptive uses and, in fact, directs the states to work together to strengthen scientific understanding across the Basin.  The Ohio legislation ignores science, setting arbitrary limits for withdrawals.  Even worse, the legislation contains double-speak language such as “it is irrebuttably presumed that the withdrawal and consumptive use” doesn’t cause an impact, as long as the withdrawal doesn’t exceed the arbitrary limit set by the legislation! 
  • The Compact requires that all new withdrawals or diversions must demonstrate the use of Environmentally Sound and Economically Feasible water conservation measures, as determined by each State.  The Ohio legislation allows a water user to determine what water conservation and efficiency measures to use, if any.  It also forbids the State to develop a mandatory water conservation and efficiency program.
  • The Compact clearly defines terms such as “Waters of the Basin or Basin Water” to mean “the Great Lakes and all streams, rivers, lakes, connecting channels and other bodies of water, including tributary groundwater, within the Basin.”  The Ohio legislation seems to want to restrict this definition just to “named rivers and streams,” ignoring how water resources are connected and intertwined.

This twisting of the Compact’s meaning and intent goes a long way towards explaining why former Ohio Governors, including republicans Bob Taft and George Voinovich, oppose the measure, as does Sam Speck, the former director of Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources.  They’re joined by scientists, lawyers and environmental organizations who are deeply concerned about what this ill-conceived legislation will do not only to Lake Erie and the watersheds of Ohio, but also how it will affect adjacent states Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York and the Canadian province of Ontario.

The Great Lakes Compact is a legally binding agreement.  When Ohio signed on to the Compact in 2008, it agreed to go down the whole line – not just pick and choose from the Compact's provisions like a smorgasboard.

Ohio needs to live up to its agreement.

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