All Great Lakes states now set to implement, comply with water management compact

Stateline Midwest ~ July/August 2012

With Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich’s signing of HB 473 into law in June, each of the eight Great Lakes states now has water-management plans in place to comply with a historic agreement designed to protect the world’s largest system of fresh surface water.

Enactment of the new law in Ohio took two tries by the legislature.

Last year, Kasich vetoed a bill (HB 231) seeking to meet Ohio’s requirements under the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact. Kasich and others said the 2011 legislation did not adequately protect Lake Erie and other water resources within the basin.

The new bill “was much better in many ways, and that’s encouraging,” says Sara Gosman, a water resources attorney for the National Wildlife Federation.

The legislature, for example, significantly lowered the threshold for when water users in the basin must seek a permit. HB 231 would have established the weakest permitting standard among the eight Great Lakes states; HB 473 puts Ohio more in line with the thresholds already in place in other states (see table).

Gosman says the thresholds only tell part of the story about the strengths and weaknesses of state laws. Other factors include whether permitting standards apply to new or existing users, the decision-making process and standard that states will use in determining whether to OK a permit, and the strength of state conservation programs.

She singles out parts of the plans in place in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin as being potential models for other states.

• Michigan for its science-based approach to managing the state’s water resources — through use of an innovative assessment tool that evaluates the potential adverse impact of withdrawals on water resources;

• Minnesota for its strong permitting standards and a water conservation program that predates the compact; and

• Wisconsin for being the first state to develop water conservation and efficiency goals under the compact, and for having a comprehensive permitting program in place.