ADA, Ohio — A state legislative committee heard additional testimony about the Lake Erie water quality issue, and the governor’s executive order that seeks to declare farms in that part of the state as watersheds in distress.
Known as the “Toward a Cleaner Lake Erie Working Group,” the lawmakers entertained nearly three hours of testimony from agricultural stakeholders, as well as Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler, Oct. 3 at Ohio Northern University.
The working group is a separate body from the Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Commission, which is legally required to review Gov. John Kasich’s order and decide whether the watersheds should be declared distressed. Both groups are weighing similar concerns.
Farmers and conservation leaders said Kasich’s order is ahead of itself, and will cause undue economic stress on an already hurting agricultural sector. They said it could be cost prohibitive for every farmer to develop a nutrient management plan, which can cost as much as $15 an acre spread across 2 million acres.
The county conservation districts would also incur a cost to get the plans implemented in each county, and state conservation leaders do not believe they have enough funding nor personnel to make the goal doable.
“With a large scope and limited resources in place for this designation, I feel that the SWCDs would not be able to meet its goals and the plan will fail,” said Kris Swartz, Wood County SWCD supervisor and past president of the Ohio Federation of Soil and Water Conservation Districts.
Swartz, who also farms, said he thinks the Ohio SWCD Commission does have the ability to put a plan in place that provides the same depth found in the executive order, but he said doing so would require stakeholder support.
Director Butler, however, said the data clearly shows that the bulk of the phosphorus runoff is coming from nonpoint, farm sources, and that the state needs to move from “random acts of conservation” and “demonstrations” to something more targeted and data driven.
“Even with just five years of data it is really, undeniably and understandably clear to us where the phosphorus predominantly comes from,” Butler said. “It is from nonpoint sources and it is led predominantly by agricultural nonpoint sources.”
He said the state can’t wait until the issue is perfectly understood before acting. He argued that enough is already known to begin a process of “adaptive management,” or acting on what is known, and monitoring and adjusting along the way.
”If you’ve got a crisis here, you can’t wait until, frankly, you have all of the answers, before you go implementing some and seeing whether or not you’re being successful,” Butler said.
The timing of the designation is one of the biggest issues on farmer’s minds, and whether state regulators are acting too soon.
Practices being developed
Duane Stateler, a grain and hog farmer who is also one three farmers participating in the Blanchard River Watershed Demo Farms, said best management practices are still being developed and put to the test, with only a couple years of data to show what is working.
He argued that more time is needed because each year of farming is different, and the best management practices are still evolving.
“The notion that there is some easy regulatory solution that farmers like me will implement and we will quickly fix our water quality challenges is simply false,” he said.
Mike Poling, an Ohio Farm Bureau Federation trustee and farmer from Delphos, Ohio, said he’s frustrated by the speed of the executive order, and doubts the state has the resources to write and carry out that many nutrient management plans anytime soon.
Poling, who also is a Technical Service Provider who writes nutrient management plans, said the governor’s order is impractical.
“It is frustrating to say the least, to then see an executive order proposing to declare eight watersheds in distress using data that is unclear and without identifying the time and resources to implement a plan for two million acres and 7,000 farms.”
Concern was also raised over the political ramifications of declaring the watersheds in distress.
Butler said that with the current data, state leaders have the chance to do something positive for their constituents, that will be recognized across Ohio and in other states.
“It’s (the data) there for our taking and availability,” Butler said, reminding the panel of the state’s commitment to meet a 40 percent reduction in phosphorus loading by 2025.
There is also some uncertainty what the next Ohio governor may do, related to Lake Erie and the executive order. Kasich is serving the final three months of his two-term position.
Kasich was also a presidential contender in 2016, and has hinted toward another run, in interviews with national media.
According to Poling, farmers want to be involved with finding the water quality issue, but they want the process to stay realistic.
“We will continue to be the leaders on this important undertaking, but we insist that practicality, not politics, shape our state’s efforts,” Poling said.
The legislative group is planning another meeting, sometime after the November elections. The group is chaired by Republicans Brian Hill, state representative from Zanesville, and Sen. Bob Hackett, of London.
They said they are holding the work group meetings to hear from farmers and hear their thoughts on the distressed watershed designation.
Hackett said the ag community and the Legislature have worked well on the water quality issue so far, and he wants to continue making sure they continue to do so.
- Kasich’s executive order concerns many (Oct. 25, 2018).
- Battle of Lake Erie Continues over watershed order (Oct. 11, 2018)
- Task force weigh’s governor’s distressed watershed order (Aug. 31, 2018).
- Commission says more is needed before acting on governor’s order (July 19, 2018).
- Ohio Gov. signs executive order on Lake Erie (July 11, 2018).
- Ohio EPA to declare western portion of Lake Erie impaired (March 22, 2018).
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