The massive stall to Lake Erie protections happening behind the scenes in Columbus: Thomas Suddes

Faster than thirsty banquet guests darting to an open bar, agribusiness lobbyists and their legislative pals have rushed to derail Gov. Kasich's plan to address the toxic-algae-producing runoff from the Maumee River into Lake Erie, writes Thomas Suddes.

Campaign 2018’s hurly-burly may mask a Statehouse stall on protecting Lake Erie from pollution that the Maumee River’s watershed pumps into the lake – and two related developments.

The first development: A Sept. 21 Ohio Supreme Court ruling against a pollution-fighting Lake Erie Bill of Rights, a ruling that revealed what looks like a prickly split inside the court.

The justices kept off November’s ballot a “Lake Erie Bill of Rights” amendment to Toledo’s city charter to declare that Lake Erie and its watershed “possess the right to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve'” – and to subject lake polluters to penalties. 

True, the Supreme Court’s September decision resembled its earlier rulings putting the kibosh on similar proposals by residents of other Ohio localities. But Justice Sharon L. Kennedy, a Hamilton Republican, said those earlier Supreme Court rulings are a legal mish-mash that demands correction. And Justice Patrick F. Fischer, a Cincinnati Republican, said the Supreme Court should stop dodging a review of Substitute House Bill 463‘s constitutionality.

A section of that bill, passed in December 2016 by a lame-duck Ohio General Assembly, requires county Boards of Elections to keep off the ballot voter-initiated measures that an Elections board – not a court – decides is unconstitutional. A bystander’s prediction: With the right case, and shrewd arguments, community environmental bills of rights, which the 2016 law aims to stymie, might eventually get on local ballots in Ohio.

The second development came Oct. 3. Ruling in a federal Clean Water Act case, Senior U.S. District Judge James G. Carr, of Toledo, criticized the state’s historic indifference to Lake Erie’s health. “As a result of [Ohio’s] inattention,” Carr wrote, “… the risk remains that sometime in the future, upwards of 500,000 Northwest Ohio residents will again, as they did in August 2014, be deprived of clean, safe water for drinking, bathing, and other normal and necessary uses.”

As if to confirm Carr’s viewpoint, consider the obstacles that Republican Gov. John Kasich’s administration has faced in trying to protect the lake. In July, Kasich designated a number of Maumee River tributaries as “distressed” watersheds – distressed by phosphorus pollution. The more phosphorus in water, the faster that algae can grow. (The 2014 mess Carr referred to was a gigantic algal bloom in Lake Erie). If a watershed is designated as distressed, the state may set standards to “abate the degradation of the waters of [Ohio] by residual farm products, manure, or soil sediment.”

The Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Commission must approve Kasich’s designation of a distressed watershed. But 13 weeks ago, on July 19, the panel sent Kasich’s proposal to a subcommittee for study. At the Statehouse, “study” means “stall.”

Ohio soil and water panel needs to grow a backbone. Lake Erie is too important to the state and its future: editorial

Faster than thirsty banquet guests darting to an open bar, agribusiness lobbyists and their legislative pals rushed to weaken Kasich’s plan. Speaker Ryan Smith, a Republican from Gallia County’s Bidwell, and Senate President Larry Obhof, a Medina Republican, said in so many words that Kasich needed to defer to legislators because, hey, they need to be part of the process. (“Process,” another Statehouse Flubber word, means “hear everybody out – then do what your campaign contributors want.”)

So eight weeks ago, on Aug. 20, Obhof and Smith appointed (attention, George Orwell) a “Toward a Cleaner Lake Erie” Working Group, which has met … twice. A General Assembly working group is a repair shop for the status quo. And John Kasich leaves office on Jan. 14.

There’s no mystery about what threatens the lake. Lake Erie Waterkeeper, part of the Lake Erie Foundation, says this: “Currently the Maumee River watershed is targeted for the massive amounts of sediments – over 50 percent of Lake Erie’s sediment load – that flow into Lake Erie. In addition the Maumee watershed provides over 40 percent of the phosphorous load to Lake Erie, which Heidelberg University states is predominately from agriculture (which includes manure).”

Repeat: More than 50 percent of the sediment reaching Lake Erie, more than 40 percent of the phosphorus. You don’t have to be Julia Child to know what that’s a recipe for – unless you’re a member of the Ohio General Assembly.

Thomas Suddes, a member of the editorial board, writes from Athens.

To reach Thomas Suddes: tsuddes@cleveland.com, 216-999-4689

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