River diversion law change sought

By Diane Smith Record-Courier staff writer Published:

Two area legislators have proposed a bill to require more oversight of water diversions, hoping to have it approved before the city of Akron's proposed diversion of the Cuyahoga River goes through. But Akron's service director said the bill is unnecessary, especially in light of Akron's efforts to assure adequate flow in the Cuyahoga River. State Rep. Ann Womer Benjamin of Aurora and State Rep. Kevin Coughlin of Cuyahoga Falls have introduced a bill that would change the definition of "diversion" under state law. If the bill becomes law, diversions such as the one Akron is proposing would require a detailed environmental and economic assessment of the effect of the proposal to take water from the Cuyahoga River to provide water to three townships in Summit County. However, because the water is being returned to the basin, what Akron is proposing is not a diversion under state law and is exempt from the state approval process. Critics have said diversions cannot be granted under state law if they fail to meet a series of standards, and have claimed Akron's proposal might fail if subjected to the review process. Akron's proposal would take water from the Lake Rockwell in the Lake Erie basin to the Tuscarawas river basin. The water would be returned to the Cuyahoga River, but not the part of the river which runs through Kent, Cuyahoga Falls, Munroe Falls and Stow. Critics, including city officials in Kent and Munroe Falls, have worried the loss of water would mean less water in the Cuyahoga River, which could make problems of low oxygen levels in the river worse. Because the proposal would divert water from one basin to another, it must gain the approval of all of the Great Lakes governors. So far, only Michigan Gov. John Engler has yet to give his approval. Womer Benjamin said the law is needed because the discussions she and Coughlin have had with officials from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and the Ohio EPA indicate diversions like Akron's are subject to few state regulations. "If there is alleged restoration of water to the basin, there's virtually no regulation of the diversion in the first place," she said. "No one takes a look if the restoration of the water even matches the diversion." "We have an emergency clause in the bill in hopes the bill might even have an impact on Akron's pending proposal," she said. But Akron Service Director Joe Kidder said the legislation probably wouldn't affect Akron and isn't necessary anyway because city officials have been working with state agencies to ensure adequate flow in the river. He said Akron has been meeting with EPA officials for 12 weeks and is within two meetings of having an agreement worked out. "We've done that in a spirit of cooperation," he said. "We've done what's best first for our city, then for the community, and we have this legislation brought against us." Since Akron owns much of the riparian rights to the 12-mile stretch of the river in question, he added, Akron has an interest in assuring good water quality in the river also. "We're fighting over land we own," he said. But Womer Benjamin said the law is necessary to protect the communities that could be affected by the diversion. "Kent, Munroe Falls, Stow and Cuyahoga Falls could certainly be hurt by this diversion, without thought given to what it would do to their environment and recreation."

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