Norah Gonzalez, of Bryan, Ohio, protests next to the Williams County Courthouse – The Blade

 

By Tom Henry | SEP 22, 2019

Although Toledo is encouraged by the response area communities have shown so far to its latest plan for ending a months-long stalemate over water contracts, Williams County’s largest activist group said its fight for the Michindoh Aquifer is still on.

Sherry Fleming, Williams County Alliance chairman, said that while there has been a temporary sigh of relief, there is still a long-term battle ahead.

“Not a lot has changed in terms of us trying to protect the aquifer,” she said. “The aquifer’s still at risk.”

The Toledo suburbs of Perrysburg, Maumee, and Sylvania form the backbone of a water proposal Ed Kidston, the mayor of Pioneer, Ohio, quietly developed during the summer of 2018.

It would involve having his company, Artesian of Pioneer, run an extensive pipeline network over the 50-plus miles between the aquifer and those communities, with possible delivery to some Fulton County and Henry County townships along the way. Mr. Kidston has acknowledged in past interviews that a treatment plant also would be required.

Reaction was swift and fierce once that project become public knowledge, with dozens of residents protesting at several meetings for months. A special public meeting the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency held in Fayette, Ohio, in March in hopes of quelling the uproar drew more than 800 people, many of them holding posters in opposition.

The aquifer gets its name from nine Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio counties that sit over it. Williams is the only one of those counties that is entirely above it.

Mr. Kidston has not returned multiple requests for interviews for months, including last week. Several weeks ago, he said he is done talking and will let the public record speak for itself.

His longtime hold on the Pioneer mayor’s office is being challenged by Pioneer Councilman Al Kwader, who has filed to run against him in the next election.

Meanwhile, the Williams County Alliance has hit the reset button, waiting to see how Toledo’s negotiations with area communities plays out before deciding its next move.

Ms. Fleming said the group got stung by a Sept. 3 Ohio Supreme Court ruling that barred a referendum regarding the aquifer from this fall’s ballot.

Much like the Lake Erie Bill of Rights that was passed in Toledo on Feb. 26 and, subsequently, became the target of multiple legal challenges, Williams County Alliance members had sought passage of a “rights of nature” initiative for the Michindoh Aquifer. The proposal called for a ban on withdrawals from outside the region, including would-be bottlers.

The Williams County Board of Elections, by a 3-1 vote, declined to put the measure on the Nov. 5 ballot, even though it appeared the alliance had gathered enough signatures. The elections board claimed the measure would violate the Ohio constitution, a decision the group’s attorney, Terry Lodge of Toledo, tried to get the Ohio Supreme Court to reverse.

The high court did not rule on the ballot proposal’s merits, but said Mr. Lodge should have first tried an appeals court. Mr. Lodge said he believed he needed to go straight to the Ohio Supreme Court to get a decision in time for the proposal to get on the fall ballot, given the timing.

The fall 2020 ballot is now the earliest that proposal could go to voters, he said.

Williams County Alliance members haven’t decided yet whether to try again, Ms. Fleming said.

“There’s a right for people to be frustrated with their government,” she said. “It was a technicality of what path we took.”

What concerns her and Mr. Lodge more in the immediate future is recently approved legislation that they contend will make permits for large water withdrawals easier to get from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. They fear it could lead to water from that aquifer being withdrawn and sold outside the region like a commodity, perhaps in bottles.

“We’re talking about corporations moving in and quietly applying for permits,” Mr. Lodge said.

A lot of the region’s water future is tied to how the state of Ohio deals with western Lake Erie’s chronic algal blooms, Ms. Fleming said.

Until the annual threat goes away for good, residents who use the Michindoh Aquifer can’t stop worrying about water from that area being diverted eastward — whether it’s by Mr. Kidston or a bottling company, she said.

“We would be in a better situation out here if the state of Ohio would fix the algae problem of western Lake Erie,” Ms. Fleming said. “It’s so crazy when you consider how critical of a resource water is everywhere else [in the world].”

Toledo’s apparent progress in negotiations resulted in unexpected literature arriving in some Maumee mailboxes recently, in the form of a flyer that depicts a choice between algae-infused water and clear, aquifer water.

“Which Water Do You Want for Your Family?” it asks in reference to raw sources used by Toledo and Michindoh-area communities, respectively.

The flyer gives no indication of who produced or paid for it. And it contends Maumee water users could save $67 million by choosing the aquifer-source water, without stating how.

“Choose Wisely for the Future of Your Community,” the flyer reads.

Ms. Fleming said she and other alliance members believe the flyers have been distributed by people supportive of Mr. Kidston’s plan, but admitted they “have no way to prove it.”

Toledo’s latest plan for a regional water authority differs from the ill-fated Toledo Area Water Authority from a couple of years ago in that it would give suburbs more representation in decision-making. TAWA talks eventually collapsed.

Contracts would be for 40 years, with rates equalized over seven years.

Ed Moore, Toledo’s public utilities director, told Perrysburg City Council last Tuesday that Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz wanted to meet the request that suburbs made for more representation and fairer rates to revive broken-down negotiations.

Mr. Kapszukiewicz has said would-be customers have until Oct. 18. Perrysburg, like other communities, plans to take a final vote before then. Mr. Moore said he will make a similar presentation to Maumee City Council this week.

The city got a big boost on Sept. 10, when Lucas County commissioners unanimously agreed to be part of a new regional water authority. Lucas County is the city’s largest customer.

Its second-largest customer, Michigan’s South County Water System serving much of Monroe County, then agreed to be part of the upcoming water district on Sept. 17.

That same night, Whitehouse Village Council, by a 5-1 vote with Councilman Richard Bingham opposed, passed the second reading of legislation authorizing a contract. A third and final vote is expected before the Oct. 18 deadline.