REYNOLDSBURG, Ohio — The Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Commission voted 4-3 to table its consideration of an executive order issued by Ohio Gov. John Kasich in July, that seeks to declare eight northwestern Ohio watersheds in distress, and set specific rules for 7,000 farms, including the requirement of a nutrient management plan.
A motion to approve the order was first made by Kate Bartter, and seconded by Fred Cash, but member Kent Stuckey moved to table the action, saying it was necessary to know the rules being implemented, before consenting to such an order.
“It is more than simply a yes or no on this,” Stuckey said. “We do have responsibilities to the people of Ohio.”
Stuckey, a past president of the Ohio Federation of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, was joined in his vote to table by Bill Knapke, environmental manager at Cooper Farms; Etta Reed, a professional engineer; and Tom Price, commission chairman.
The vote to table was opposed by Bartter, director of Ohio State University’s office of Energy and Environment; Bethany Gibosn, a veterinarian from Ashville; and Cash, vice chairman of the commission.
Prior to the vote, board members discussed and also disputed the best course of action. James Zehringer, director of the Department of Natural Resources; Craig Butler, director of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency; and the interim director of agriculture, Tim Derickson, all said the commission should vote in favor of the order as it stands.
Butler warned the voting members of the commission that “delay tactics jeopardize the integrity of the commission.”
He asked the voting members to “please do not play politics with this issue.”
Tom Price, who chairs the commission, said he took issue with the accusation that the commission is delaying its work, or dragging its feet.
“I believe it’s an information-gathering process,” Price said.
He echoed the comments of others, saying the rules need to be known and understood before the commission gives its consent.
The motion to table the executive order will allow members to review the order, and the rules that are currently being written, through Feb. 15. A public hearing on the rules is scheduled for Nov. 20, at the Ohio Department of Agriculture.
Gov. Kasich’s press secretary, Jon Keeling, said years of research from Ohio State University and the federal government show that Lake Erie is imperiled.
“The governor applauds the members of the Soil and Water Conservation Commission who had the courage and commitment to their duty to acknowledge this basic, irrefutable fact and take the right action to begin turning things around,” Keeling said in a written statement to Farm and Dairy. “It is deeply troubling that other members, for some reason, couldn’t do the right thing.”
Keeling indicated the governor will explore other options to clean up Lake Erie, although he did not specify which ones.
“Clearly, it is going to take other avenues and other measures to achieve the protections we need, and we urge everyone who cares about water quality in Ohio and in the Great Lakes to come together to save the lake before it’s too late.”
Task force report
Board member Fred Cash, vice chairman and a retired environmental engineer, submitted a report from the special task force that was created at the July commission meeting to study Kasich’s order and whether the commission should approve it, reject it, or suggest amendments.
Cash did not give a specific recommendation in his report, issued to board members Wednesday, but during his testimony to the full commission, he said “we are all after the same thing,” and that his own decision rests in the way he interprets the distressed watershed report, and what he believes Ohio Revised Code requires of commission members.
“In that report, it’s clear that’s what we need to look at, even though implementation is critical,” Cash said.
In the final task force report to Cash, only two of the members said they were in favor of approving Kasich’s order, with a third saying she would support a “conditional designation.”
Jeff Reutter, a research scientist and the retired director of Ohio State University’s Stone Lab, said there is a need for urgency, given the potential impact to human health, disease, and the impact to coastal businesses and cities.
He said the task force should have spent more time focusing on whether the eight watersheds are scientifically in distress, which he said is clearly the case.
Task force member Jessica D’Ambrosio, representing The Nature Conservancy, said her organization makes its decisions based on science, and the science presented to the commission indicates distress.
“To that end, we find the data supporting this designation to be credible,” she said. “Looking at the body of scientific work as a whole, the weight of evidence is compelling and leads us to support the designation of these targeted watersheds.”
What is the role?
Commission members continue to dispute whether their responsibility is to act on science alone, or whether they are allowed to also consider the rules, impact and implementation that goes with a distressed watershed designation.
The Kasich administration has argued the focus should be on the decision itself, based on a scientific report they gave commission members.
ODNR Director Zehringer said members should be asking themselves whether the data they’ve been handed shows distressed watersheds.
“According to the experts, the answer is yes,” Zehringer said.
Ohio law requires soil and water conservation members to “consent” by a majority vote before a distressed watershed ruling can be issued. It’s not clear how much information commission members are allowed to consider before giving their consent.
Variables to consider
Task force member Cathann Kress, dean of OSU’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Science, was charged with reviewing the research in the governor’s report.
She did not offer a specific opinion of how the commission should vote, but in her review of scientific questions, she noted some uncertainties regarding funding, implementation, whether it would actually achieve the desired effects before 2025, and how a watershed in distress would be removed from the distressed listing, after it improves.
During the meeting, she cautioned commission members to keep in mind “the number of variables that are still part of this,” and the responsibility of working with producers on whatever may be enacted.
Tadd Nicholson, head of the Ohio Corn and Wheat Growers Association, said the plan before the commission has too many shortcomings, and will “divert the attention of the Soil and Water county staff and the farmers” into writing plans, rather than enacting them.
He said if the commission truly believes its scope in the matter is limited to the science, then members should consider the report by Ohio Farm Bureau, which determined none of the seven criteria of a watershed in distress are met.
Nicholson concluded that an even better option would be to vote no on Kasich’s order, and “ask the administration to work with the General Assembly and all stakeholders to craft a better plan that has a clear path to success for farmers and Lake Erie.”
Link to Task Force opinions: Ohio Task Force final report.
Link to Farm Bureau report: Ohio Farm Bureau analysis of the criteria that determine a watershed in distress.
- Kasich’s executive order concerns many (Oct. 25, 2018).
- Battle of Lake Erie Continues over watershed order (Oct. 11, 2018)
- Kasich replaces commission members opposed to his order (July 23, 2018).
- Kasich signs Lake Erie executive order (July 11, 2018).
- Farmers question whether Kasich’s executive order is practical (Oct. 4, 2018).
- Western Lake Erie declared impaired (March 22, 2018).
- Lake Erie algal forecast predicted to be less severe (July 12, 2018).
- Heavy rains could lead to near record algal bloom (July 10, 2015).
- Groups propose Ohio water quality bond issue proposed (Oct. 27, 2015).
- Ohio Legislature approves bill restricting fertilizer application (March 25, 2015).
- Two-day water ban draws attention to algae, and Toledo water plant (Aug. 8, 2014).
- Kasich signs law requiring farmers to be certified to apply fertilizer (June 5, 2014).
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