How state lawmakers put city water systems at risk

State Reps. David Leland and Michael Stinziano, both Columbus Democrats, would end what amounts to a special exemption for homeowners who live next to municipally owned buffer zones surrounding water reservoirs.

This past week, two state representatives started to shine welcome light on a dark, hidden crevice in the massive state budget bill passed in the summer. Their worthy goal is to repeal a last-minute provision that would endanger the safety of drinking water for millions across the state, including those who use the city of Akron’s water system. As they point out, recent water crises, among them the shutdown of Toledo’s water supply due to toxic algae, should lead the legislature toward more protection for municipal water resources, not less.

State Reps. David Leland and Michael Stinziano, both Columbus Democrats, would end what amounts to a special exemption for homeowners who live next to municipally owned buffer zones surrounding water reservoirs. The provision inserted into the budget bill allows such homeowners access to the protective zones, permitting them to cut down trees, mow, create paths and remove vegetation. Leland and Stinziano propose repeal of the exemption, restoring the right of cities to guard vigorously their water supplies, making arrests and issuing fines if needed.

The current budget language amounts to yet another attack on municipal home rule by Republican majorities in the Ohio House and Senate. What’s worse is that the misguided budget language brings with it the potential to degrade the ability of natural buffers to absorb runoff, filtering out substances such as nitrates, phosphorous (which can cause toxic algal blooms), herbicides, pesticides and other contaminants. At worst, the budget provision opens the door to deliberate acts of terrorism.

Telling is that no Republican lawmakers have stepped forward to claim sponsorship of the budget language affecting municipal water supplies. The provision was crafted after a dispute between the city of Columbus and wealthy homeowners living near a city reservoir reached the highest levels of state government.

Leland and Stinziano hope that hearings will expose the potential dangers, never discussed during budget hearings, spurring action to repeal the language.

Fortunately, five cities, including Columbus, Akron, Barberton, Lima and Westerville, have gone into court to block temporarily the budget provision on buffer zones, which would have gone into effect in September. But as recent events have shown, delays in protecting water supplies are no longer tolerable. Rather than wait for the uncertain outcome of lengthy court proceedings, the legislature should quickly act to correct its mistake.

In Akron, the important objective is to protect Lake Rockwell, the city’s primary reservoir, from harm.

Last-minute tweaks to budget bills are nothing new at the Statehouse, doling out special favors in the dead of night. What the Republican-run legislature did in this instance goes far beyond a tweak by giving a small group of wealthy property owners special treatment that could lead to public health problems.

By calling attention to the problem, David Leland and Michael Stinziano are doing the Republican majorities a favor, allowing them to repair their mistake before an entire municipal water supply has to be shut down.

By the Beacon Journal editorial board

Published: November 22, 2015