Commentary
10:58 am
Tue July 19, 2011

Ohio bill poses threat to Lake Erie

We’ve had more than enough to worry about in Michigan this year -- and more than enough game-changing legislation to follow.

But perhaps as a result, most of us missed something that happened in Ohio that could have had a tremendous negative impact on us, and on everyone in the Great Lakes states.

And the threat isn’t over yet. Earlier this month the Ohio Assembly, which is their legislature, passed a bill that would have allowed businesses to withdraw as much as five million gallons of water a day from Lake Erie -- without even getting a state permit.

What’s more, businesses could take another two million gallons a day from inland rivers and streams in the Lake Erie watershed. And they could almost certainly have gotten away with taking more.

That’s because the measure, House Bill 231, provided absolutely no regulation, nor way of monitoring how much water was actually being taken. This law was sponsored by a state representative from Napoleon, a town not far from Toledo, who runs a company that pumps water out of Lake Erie and bottles it.

There are too many things wrong with this law to count. One of Lake Erie’s big problems is huge blooms of blue-green algae choking off the lakes. The algae looks bad, smells worse and produces a toxin called microcystin that is harmful to both humans and animals. What’s more, the algae problem is getting worse every year.

That’s because of agricultural pollution.  Runoffs of animal waste from farms, especially giant, so-called factory farms have poured large amounts of phosphorus into the water.

Phosphorus is the best possible thing to make the algae grow. When water levels are lowered, such as by pumping out millions of gallons of water, the phosphorous levels are more concentrated.

That makes algae populations explode. Now not only was this bill to drain the lakes a dangerously bad idea, many experts think it was also in fact illegal.  Two years ago, the eight states surrounding the lakes, two Canadian provinces, and the governments of the United States and Canada signed something called the Great Lakes Compact, to protect our most important resource.

The compact, as I read it, calls for its members to limit water withdrawals and act in concert on any matter concerning the lakes. Yet Ohio’s lawmakers seemed neither to know, or care,. about that. In the end, Ohio Governor John Kasich vetoed the bill, after a storm of protest and the threat of a lawsuit by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.  But that may not be the end of this.

Significantly, Governor Kasich, a pro-business Republican, didn’t criticize the amount of water being withdrawn; he simply said it didn’t provide for sufficient monitoring of water usage.

He encouraged the lawmakers to try again. Now there’s no doubt that the Great Lakes are our most important resource. They hold ninety percent of North America’s fresh water.

We've abused them in the past, and if we badly screw them up, we could be doomed. It seems to me that anything involving policy towards the lakes ought to be regulated not by any individual state, but an international board consisting of all the Great Lakes states and provinces. If that’s not common sense, I don’t know what is.