Conserving Portage resources

By Diane Smith Record-Courier staff writer Published:

Now, as the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and the city of Akron prepare to draft an agreement the group says excludes their needs, and the governor of Michigan prepares to cast the deciding vote on the diversion, some river communities are preparing to defend their rights, in court if necessary.

Meanwhile, local legislators are debating a bill aimed at diversions like Akron's. And Portage County commissioners are considering legal action, either with the Middle Cuyahoga group or on its own.

It's up to Engler

Under Akron's proposal, water would be taken from Lake Rockwell in the Great Lakes basin and sent to three townships in southern Summit County in the Ohio River basin.

Because the lake is in a different basin than the townships, the plan needs approval of all eight governors of the Great Lakes states. The only governor who has yet to give his approval is Michigan Gov. John Engler.

John Truscott, Engler's press secretary, said he expects a memo to be presented to Engler for his consideration later this week and for the governor to make a decision within two weeks of receiving the memo.

He said he did not know how Engler would vote.

No net loss

Although Akron plan is considered a diversion under federal law, it is not a diversion under state law because of two words in the state code _ "without return."

Such diversions would have to undergo a permit process including an environmental impact study and an optional public hearing.

Akron's diversion, is exempt from that provision because it would provide "no net loss" to the Lake Erie basin.

The plan calls for water to be returned to the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie, but at points downstream of Kent, Munroe Falls and Cuyahoga Falls.

A bill sponsored by State Rep. Ann Womer Benjamin of Aurora and State Rep. Kevin Coughlin of Cuyahoga Falls would subject Akron's diversion to the permit process by simply removing the words "without return."

The bill had its first hearing recently, but is not expected to see a final vote any time soon because the legislature is focused on school funding, Womer-Benjamin said. However, she said, the fact that the bill received a hearing soon after it was proposed is a positive sign.

"My primary concern is the affect on the city of Kent," Womer-Benjamin said. "It's a significant concern to my constituents. Apparently because of Akron's ownership rights, it seems to be something Akron will do again and again. It's safe to say my constituents would like some guarantee for their rights to be protected in the future."

Akron Service Director Joe Kidder has called the bill unnecessary.

"I thought they were grandstanding (when the bill was proposed) and I still do," he said. "The representatives met with ODNR before the bill was proposed, and they never mentioned anything about this bill."

Akron's law director Max Rothal has ruled the proposed bill would have no effect on Akron's diversion because of a 1911 agreement giving Akron the right to use water from the Cuyahoga River to supply water to its residents. If there were an attempt to make the state code apply to Akron, it would be unconstututional, he said.

Womer-Benjamin said the legislature is not the branch of the goverment which decides whether a law is constitutional.

"I think Representative Coughlin and I don't think this will affect the current diversion," she said. "But we hope it will at least call attention to the very real concern regarding future diversions, and if that happens, we will have achieved a very meaningful goal."

Meanwhile, Sen. Leigh Herington of Kent, who represents the area the water would be taken from and the townships it would serve, said he will be reviewing the testimony on Womer-Benjamin's bill before deciding where he stands on the water diversion.

Herrington's district includes all of Portage County, the northern part of Akron and southern Summit County, including the three townships which would receive water under Akron's proposed pact. He said he has received many calls on both sides of the issue.

"This has obviously gotten a lot of people upset," he said. "The problem is this diversion might help some residents of my district and could potentially hurt others."

Members of the Kent Environmental Council have said the bill does not go far enough, although chairman Harold Walker said some redefinition of diversion is needed.

The KEC would like to see the bill amended to define diversion as removal of water from the basin without direct return. They would also like to see water conservation requirments and mandatory public hearings, and want to delay action until environmental impact can be studied.

Stuck in the middle

Communities in the middle Cuyahoga, who would not see a drop of the water Akron plans to return to the river, say the plan could potentially exclude their needs.

Kent and Portage County officials are concerned about the impact of the diversion on wastewater treatment. Cuyahoga Falls officials are concerned there would not be enough water left in the river to recharge its wells, a concern shared by Munroe Falls, which gets its water from Cuyahoga Falls. And all are concerned about the impact of low flow on the aesthetics of the river, noting unhealthy fish could create odor problems, making their riverside parks less enjoyable to use.

Kent Law Director James Silver said he plans to meet with the law directors of the other communities and a representative of the Portage County Prosecutor's office to decide what action to take.

Portage County Commissioner Chuck Keiper said the prosecutor's office is still deciding whether to join forces with the middle Cuyaoga group or take action of its own.

In addition to the low flow concerns, the county is also questioning whether Akron has the right to remove water from the river to serve towns outside its borders without compensation to the county.

But Kidder said Akron did compensate Portage County when it bought rights to the river and much of the land surrounding it for $1 million in 1911.

"We own the rights to the river," Kidder said. "The rate payers of Akron bought them for $1 million."

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