Members of Williams County Alliance turn in petitions

BRYAN, Ohio — A charter petition to give Williams County, Ohio more power to protect the Michindoh Aquifer is in the hands of the Williams County Board of Elections.

However, the Ohio 2020-21 budget, set to be signed today by Gov. Mike DeWine, contains “hidden” language prohibiting ecosystems from having rights, said a Saturday news release from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund.

“The state is coming out on the wrong side of history as the government tries to stop rights of nature, a concept that is experiencing accelerating growth around the planet,” said the news release.

Documents containing 2,534 Ohio residents’ names were delivered by a group representing people from across the tri-state area on Wednesday morning to the Williams County Board of Elections office in Bryan, Ohio.

AJ Nowaczyk, director of the board of elections, said the signatures will be verified prior to the next board meeting. It was first set for July 16 at 4 p.m. but Sherry Fleming of the Williams County Alliance said it has been advanced to July 8 at 4 p.m. to meet legal timelines.

The board of elections is made up of four people, two Republicans and two Democrats.

Fleming said her organization will remain vigilant, making sure the election board is aware of rules and deadlines for charter applications.

“They will make a report to the county commissioners,” said Fleming.

Ohio’s state constitution allows municipalities and counties to create local charters providing their governments with citizen-granted powers. Summit and Cuyahoga counties in Ohio have achieved home rule status while the majority of the counties remain under state authority.

Charter petition

The Williams County Alliance has led the charge to defend the aquifer with assistance from the nonprofit CELDF. Though only Williams County residents could sign the petition, it has met with strong support from those who object to Artesian of Pioneer, a company based in Pioneer, Ohio that plans to pipe water from the Michindoh Aquifer to suburbs of Toledo.

The proposed county charter language says, “The right of local community self-government is an inalienable and inherent right. It derives from the principle that all political power is inherent in the people, is exercised by them for their benefit, and is subject to their control.”

County officers, boards, commissions and authorities would exercise the same powers and perform the same functions as before unless specifically directed by the charter, as proposed. The 16-page charter draft details county government roles.

Section 1.9 lays out the rights of the Michindoh Aquifer and the Michindoh Aquifer ecosystem.

“The Michindoh Aquifer Ecosystem includes the sediments, water, all natural water features, rivers, lakes, creeks and recharge areas as well as communities of organisms, soil and terrestrial and aquatic sub-ecosystems that are part of the Michindoh Aquifer,” says the charter proposal.

Six Williams County residents — Albert Kwader of Pioneer; Rosemary Hug, Lou Pendleton and Fleming, all of Bryan; and Lynn Brigle and Kim Gearhart of Edon — have agreed to represent the registered Ohio voters who signed the petition.

“Once a pipeline to extract and sell the water to entities outside the aquifer is built, there will be no turning back,” said Pendleton. “Rather than a business selling our drinking water for profit, we should conserve the aquifer for future generations.”

Defending the aquifer

The Michindoh Aquifer is located under Steuben, DeKalb and Allen counties in Indiana, northwestern Ohio and southeastern Michigan.

Among those in Bryan on Wednesday to present the petition were Niann Lautzenhiser, vice president of Steuben County’s 101 Lakes Trust, and Hamilton resident Susan Catterall.

Michigan resident Rachel Yoder took her three young sons with her to the petition hand-off.

“The environment is very important to me,” said Yoder, who grew up in West Unity, Ohio and now lives in Waldron, Michigan. “We need to preserve what we have for future generations … I want my boys to grow up in a place that has water and they don’t have to struggle with it.”

While she is a Michigan citizen, Yoder noted that she lives only 10 miles from the test well proposed by Artesian of Pioneer in a field in Fulton County, Ohio, near Fayette.

Legal issues

People from across the aquifer area have gotten behind the Williams County proposition out of concern for the aquifer and a lack of action by state governments.

“We are facing a water crisis but we must respond by uplifting democratic, human and ecosystem rights above the profit motif,” said Fleming. “We see water as a human right and part of an ecosystem — not a commodity to be sold for profit. In Williams County, we have no other economically feasible source of water, there is no recognition of our right of local control, and the state has failed to act.”

In Ohio, there has been a push back against citizen initiatives to defend the rights of nature. Passed in February by Toledo voters, the Lake Erie Bill of Rights immediately faced a legal challenge, filed by the international law firm that represents Drewes Farms Partnership of Custar, Ohio.

The Bryan Times recently quoted John Leutz, legislative counsel with the County Commissioners Association of Ohio, saying he expects the Williams County charter initiative to be challenged as well.

The 3,000-page budget before Gov. DeWine today has been approved by both the Ohio House and Senate. It says: “Nature or any ecosystem does not have standing to participate in or bring an action in any court of common pleas …. No person, on behalf of or representing nature or an ecosystem shall intervene in any manner.”

The Williams County Alliance, in a post on its Facebook page Saturday afternoon, encouraged Williams County citizens to contact their state Representative James Hoops, who serves on the Ohio House Finance Committee, and ask him if he knows who is responsible for adding the anti-nature’s rights language into the budget bill.

“Given dire warnings about the climate crisis and ecological devastation, the state’s actions are negligent. From Ecuador to New Zealand, to communities across the U.S., rights of nature laws are spreading because we must change our relationship with nature,” said Ellen Mavrich, Lorain County, Ohio Community Rights Network board member. “The time is now. Rights of nature is here, and the state cannot stop this growing tide for change.”