Great Debate

Policymakers in Ohio, nearby states and Canada are hoping to avoid a water dispute involving 6,000,000,000,000,000 gallons of water – the estimated amount of water in the Great Lakes. It’s 95 percent of the fresh water in the United States and 1/5 of the world’s supply.

As southern and western states gain population and congressional representation, many in the Great Lakes region fear the precious natural resource could be threatened by out of basin water withdrawals.

To address the issue, eight regional states and Canada have drafted an agreement known as the Great Lakes Compact that would prevent such withdrawals. Before it can take effect, it must be approved by lawmakers in each state.

Ohio Farm Bureau had been part of a task force that provided input to state leaders as they negotiated the compact. At its most recent annual meeting, Farm Bureau delegates voiced their approval of the effort to protect the Great Lakes, albeit with a couple of stipulations.

“As long as we’re supporting private property rights and Ohio’s right to manage its own resources,” explained Larry Antosch, OFBF director of environmental policy. A provision in the compact would give Ohio control of its own withdrawals within the basin.

State lawmakers are now debating what the compact could mean to personal water rights. Sen. Timothy Grendell, R-Chesterland, said the pact could essentially convert all ground and surface water in northern Ohio to public property as it guards against water diversions.

Rep. Matt Dolan, R-Novelty, who introduced legislation in Ohio to ratify the compact, said that’s not the case and that the agreement is important to protecting Ohio’s economy.

“If any other states or industries want to use (Great Lakes water), instead of borrowing our water, they need to come and locate in our areas to improve our economics,” he said.

A 1986 federal law already limits water diversions, but if southwestern states continue to gain political power, that could change.

“To the extent that we’re going to create another impediment to diversion, that’s a good thing. And I support passing the compact to prevent diversion,” Grendell said.

But it’s one passage in the agreement, which says that waters of the basin will be held in trust by the public, that concerns Grendell. A court could interpret that to mean that water on private property is actually owned by the public, Grendell said. He had introduced a bill that would clarify that the public trust language does not apply to tributary groundwater and non-navigable surface waters.

But any significant change to the document, such as Grendell’s suggestion, would have to be approved by all partners in the compact. Those who have already signed on would have to reopen the agreement, which has been years in the making, and approve the modified language.

As of press time, Grendell has said he would not seek to modify the compact if Ohio passed a constitutional amendment protecting private water rights.

Dolan maintains the language in the compact does not mean privately owned water would become public property, but has said he would not oppose the amendment.

“The compact itself explicitly says that any statutory rights or common law water rights that you presently enjoy in Ohio will remain after the compact,” Dolan said.

Ohio law clearly affords landowners a reasonable use of water on their property, he added.

Grendell, who has been a leading advocate of private property rights in the Senate, is taking a more cautionary approach even though it will delay the agreement.

“While, yes, we should pass the compact to strengthen the laws against diversion, we shouldn’t give away or put at risk the private water rights of our farmers and landowners as a price for passing the compact,” he said.