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Ohio governor to sign new bill on Lake Erie water withdrawals

A year after the governor of Ohio vetoed a bill that could have partially drained Lake Erie, he's about to sign legislation that allows businesses to withdraw half as much water from the lake as the original bill allowed.

But environmentalists still fear that the bill -- which is backed by Ohio's growing "fracking" industry -- could damage the lake by allowing businesses to withdraw huge amounts of water over very short periods of time, even if their long-term water withdrawals don't add up to that much.

The new legislation permits withdrawals from the lake and its Ohio tributaries averaging up to 2.5 million gallons of water a day. The bill vetoed by Ohio Gov. John Kasich last summer would have allowed water users to withdraw up to 5 million gallons a day.

"It is much better," said Kristy Meyer, director of agricultural and clean water programs at the Ohio Environmental Council. "It's in line with what other states are doing."

That clearly wasn't the case with the bill Kasich vetoed last summer, which would have allowed water withdrawals so large that the lake could have shrunk, thereby harming the habitat and the hydropower plants on the Niagara River.

Amid an outcry from former governors, newspapers across Ohio and other Great Lakes states, Kasich vetoed that legislation last July.

He then went to work with legislators, business interests and environmentalists to craft an alternative, which passed the Ohio Assembly a month ago and the Senate this Tuesday in a 20-12 vote.

"It has been a long road since last July, but we worked out our differences constructively and Lake Erie is the winner for it," Kasich said.

In addition, the bill "meets federal obligations and supports Ohio's need to boost job creation," he added.

The Ohio Petroleum Council was one of the bill's main backers, and Meyer said that's likely a sign that some of the water to be withdrawn from the lake under the legislation will go to energy companies that drill for gas using hydraulic fracturing.

Otherwise known as "fracking," the controversial practice is growing in Ohio, even as New York moves forward slowly on whether, and how, to encourage such large-scale gas drilling in the state.

While generally lauding the bill as a big improvement, environmentalists voiced concerns over some of its fine print.

Most notably, the bill regulates water withdrawals not on the basis of how much is sucked out of the watershed in any particular day, but how much is withdrawn, on average, over 90 days.

Meyer and other environmentalists worry that that means that huge amounts of water could be withdrawn, particularly from Lake Erie tributaries, in just a day or a few days.

That could lead to more algal blooms in the lake, while possibly devastating fish populations in tributaries to the lake where the water supply suddenly shrinks, environmentalists said.

"Lake Erie and its rivers and streams provide world class steelhead and walleye fishing. Unfortunately, this bill fails to protect these special resources," said Marc Smith, senior policy manager with National Wildlife Federation.

The bill allows water users to withdraw 1 million gallons per day from rivers and streams that lead into the lake, down from 2 million in last year's bill.

Tributaries that the state deems to be "high quality" would have a much stricter limit of 100,000 gallons per day, down from 300,000 in the bill's earlier version.

Such provisions mean the bill will likely have an impact that's much more specific to Ohio, rather than draining water from the entire Lake Erie basin, said Katherine Nadeau, water and natural resources program director at Environmental Advocates of New York.

While echoing some of the concerns of her colleagues, Nadeau said that overall, "it looks like this is a pretty substantial improvement."