Groups propose Ohio water quality bond issue

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testifying
Adam Sharp and Josh Knights testifying.

COLUMBUS — Everyone depends on clean, safe water and a group of individuals and organizations, ranging from industry to academia, are hoping this shared resource will lead voters to support a state bond issue, to help fund statewide water quality improvement.

During a meeting of the Lake Erie Legislative Caucus, representatives from the Healthy Water Ohio report, and a separate proposal by state Sen. Joe Schiavoni, D-Boardman, cast their support of a $1 billion statewide bond initiative that could come before voters as early as March.

Adam Sharp, director of legislative policy at Ohio Farm Bureau, said the Healthy Water Ohio report was put together by a diverse coalition of farmers, businesses, universities, and municipal leaders.

The coalition first met in November of 2013, with the goal of identifying a long-term, “20-30-year resource management plan,” that would “benefit all of Ohio, from Lake Erie to the Ohio River.”

Public survey

The group worked with a 16-member steering committee, and Columbus-based Gallagher Consulting Group, to conduct a public survey about people’s opinions toward water quality.

The survey was conducted from July 15-Aug. 6, 2014, coincidentally at the same time as the Toledo water crisis.

The results, according to Sharp, showed that 88 percent of participants felt safe drinking water was their top concern, followed by things like fishing and wildlife habitat, repairing aging water systems, tourism and recreation. More than half said the state government should take the lead on water quality, with 30 percent responding that local government should lead, and 13 percent, in favor the federal government leading.

The Healthy Water Ohio report calls for $250 million a year, with a combination of bond and private contributions. The money would be used to create a clean water trust — similar to the voter-approved Clean Ohio Fund.

Making improvements

The trust would target such things as agricultural nutrient management, drinking and sewage water infrastructure improvements, additional research and education.

“We are blessed with abundant water and that’s good for our state,” Sharp said. “We want to make sure it’s quality, it’s healthy, it’s safe…”

Josh Knights, executive director of The Nature Conservancy, said the water trust would help address the “root causes” of harmful algae blooms, and help improve the state’s water in general.

Knights said a trust “could be a vehicle to help administer new funding … from public and private resources.”

He said the trust would help fund agricultural improvements, and also nature-based projects such as wetlands, floodplains and riparian structures.

He said agriculture is a known contributor to the problem, but he said even if agriculture did everything it could to control its own nutrients, there would still be a state water quality issue.

“It’s important not to single out agriculture in the nutrient loading challenge,” Knights said.

Public infrastructure

Sen. Schiavoni’s plan, known as Senate Joint Resolution 3, would provide about $1 billion in bond funding, over 10 years, for underground water quality improvements to public infrastructure.

Schiavoni
Sen. Joe Schiavoni, testifying about his water quality bond proposal.

He said water quality is a statewide issue, from Lake Erie to the Ohio River, and requires a statewide solution. He said he thinks voters would be supportive, as long as they see the benefits in their own communities.

“It’s got to be equally dispersed and represent the entire state, and I think that voters who would go to the ballot, they would have to understand that,” Schiavoni said.

Although his plan focuses on underground infrastructure, he told Farm and Dairy, prior to the caucus meeting, that he is open to amendments and working with agriculture on water quality improvements.

Worthy cause

Sen. Randy Gardner, R-Bowling Green, and a co-chairman of the caucus, said a $1 billion bond is a significant amount, but is worth the investment.

“When you compare it to the tens of thousands of jobs — the billions of dollars of economic activity — the hundreds of businesses directly affected by the health of (Lake Erie) … We know that this amount of money is relatively small. …,” he said.

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