Rockwell proposal waiting for vote

By Diane Smith Record-Courier staff writer Published:

Akron is asking for the water diversion so it can supply water to parts of Copley, Coventry and Springfield townships in southern Summit County as part of three, joint economic development agreements.

Because water would be diverted from the Lake Erie basin to the Ohio River basin, the proposal must be approved by all eight governors in the Council of Great Lakes Governors. So far, three of the governors Ohio Gov. George Voinovich and the governors of Minnesota and Illinois have voted to endorse the plan.

Originally, Akron had asked all states to vote by July 31, said Leonard Black, environmental specialist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. However, in mid-July, the governors received more information, delaying a decision in some states.

One negative vote could kill the proposal, and environmentalists are looking to Michigan and New York as potential states to turn down the proposal.

John Truscott, press secretary for Michigan Gov. John Engler, said no decision has been made on Akron's proposal. But in the past, he said, the governor has not been a fan of water diversions.

"Historically, Governor Engler has opposed every water diversion request that has come to him," he said. "It would have to be an incredibly compelling reason to gain his vote, like public health or safety. Usually, economic development isn't considered a compelling enough reason."

But Mike McGlinchey, Akron's environmental division manager, said the city is confident the proposal is written in a way that will make it acceptable to the other governors.

"We spent a lot of time with the other states and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources structuring a proposal that would be acceptable to other states," he said. "We are anticipating approval."

Several water line construction projects are ongoing and as soon as approval is given, the townships will have Akron water, he said.

"I don't think the township trustees would have come to us if they had other alternatives," he said.

Akron's proposal has drawn fire from Kent environmentalists, who fear it would aggravate an existing problem of low flow in the Cuyahoga River, resulting in lower water quality. Kent City Council has also passed resolution in opposition to the plan, and the Portage County Commissioners are considering a similar resolution.

Another group fighting the diversion is Great Lakes United, based in Buffalo, N.Y. The group drafted letters opposing the plan to each of the eight governors, including Voinovich and their own governor, George Pataki.

Akron is asking for its diversion under a 1986 federal law stating water taken from a Great Lakes water basin must be returned there. If the wastewater is pumped back into the Lake Erie basin, it would not be considered a diversion.

However, Akron's plan calls for some wastewater to be pumped to Akron and some to another wastewater plant on the Tuscarawas River. Akron is proposing to replace the lost water with water from Portage Lakes into two points in the Cuyahoga River - both downstream of Kent, resulting in "no net loss" from the Lake Erie basin.

The "no net loss" provision makes Akron's plan unique from other water diversion plans, acknowledged Reg Gilbert of Great Lakes United. In some states, it has been somewhat of a selling point.

But letters from Great Lakes United's past president, John Jackson, call the "no net loss" provision a dangerous precedent. A recent letter from Jackson to Voinovich points out it could create a "whole new era of water trading" and ignores the impact on wildlife.

"What are acceptable effects in the area between the point of diverted water and the return of replacement water?" the letter states. "Water is the lifeblood of many forms of life whose homes and means of livelihood we must not play with cavalierly."

Based on the group's research of other states, Gilbert expects Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Indiana to approve the water diversion.

"The only states that possibly matter are Michigan and New York," he said.

Michigan, is surrounded by the Great Lakes on three sides. New York was the only state to hold public hearings on the matter.

Gilbert said he believes Michigan will ultimately approve the plan with conditions, conditions he believes Akron will not be obligated to meet under the law.

"If they stop returning the water, there's no reason the diversion would have to stop," he said.

At New York's public hearings, Great Lakes United presented many arguments against the diversion, Gilbert said. But even if those arguments are persuasive enough to gain Patacki's no vote, he predicts Voinovich, a fellow Republican, will urge him to change his mind.

He said many people he has talked to say the "no net loss" provision of the plan is compelling.

"A lot of people are saying if they veto this one, it may lead to the end of the federal law," he said. "If you can't get a diversion approved when it only affects a 20 mile stretch of the state that applied for it, you can't get any diversion approved. It's against the spirit of the law."

Black said the ODNR has looked into Kent's concern about lower river flow and is satisfied that Akron is promising to enter negotiations with the Ohio EPA.

But Edith Chase of the Kent Environmental Council said as far as she's concerned, Kent's concerns have not been addressed.

"I'd like to see requirements for minimum releases to protect the quality of water in the river," she said, adding the problem has been an existing one and would only get worse if the diversion is approved. "The way the law is written, it ignores water quality issues."

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