COLUMBUS — One of the seven members assigned to review Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s executive order for eight northwestern watersheds said the Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Commission should approve the order.
Two other members said parts of the order make sense, but could use some reworking, and the other four pointed to multiple concerns, including funding, a lack of staff to create nutrient management plans, and a general disagreement over whether the 2 million acres under consideration meet the criteria of a watershed in distress.
The group of seven experts met Oct. 25 at the Ohio Department of Agriculture, where they are finalizing a report to the full commission — over whether the larger body should approve the governor’s order, reject it, or suggest something different.
The commission will meet Nov. 1, with the possibility of a vote.
Jeff Reutter, a research scientist and retired director of Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory, an island near Put-in-Bay, said the science is sound and the decision is clear.
“I am pleased with the distressed watershed analysis,” Reutter said. “These eight watersheds are definitely in distress.”
Jessica D’Ambrosio, project director with The Nature Conservancy, said “we will support decisions and actions that will support what the science is saying.” However, she said it’s also important to know the implications and caveats that are “triggered” by a distressed designation.
She questioned whether the designation will allow farmers the appropriate flexibility to comply, specifically regarding the requirement that each farm have a nutrient management plan.
Order of events
While the members debate whether a “distressed designation” vote is appropriate, some members have also become concerned about what a designation will really mean. Rules that govern farmers’ use of fertilizer are currently moving through the Ohio rule-making process, with a scheduled hearing Nov. 20.
Without a clear answer on what this distressed designation would trigger, or how the 7,000 farmers would comply, some committee members are reluctant to cast their support.
Tadd Nicholson, executive director of the Ohio Corn and Wheat Growers Association, said the commission is being asked to support what amounts to “a random act of regulation,” similar to what state officials have called farmers’ conservation efforts, when saying they amount to “random acts of conservation.”
Nicholson said he takes issue with “random” regulations, and he doesn’t believe the governor’s plan includes the kind of foresight that would make it successful.
He thanked task force chairman Fred Cash for involving ag organizations in the discussion, and said successful policy should be done with farmers — not at their exclusion.
“There is a willing party (agriculture) to work together in a collaborative method,” Nicholson said. “But it needs to be comprehensive, it needs to be well thought out.”
Elizabeth Harsh, director of the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association, said it would be premature for the Soil and Water Conservation Commission to sign off on a designation, when the rules are still being determined.
“I believe agriculture is willing to do our work, but it’s about the process, and I think we need to slow down and be more thoughtful and collaborative in that process,” she said.
Kris Swartz, representing the Ohio Federation of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, said there is a lack of funding and resources to accomplish the governor’s order, and he also cautioned against making a ruling when the rules aren’t known.
“We really don’t know what the plan is, because we don’t know what the rules are,” he said. “In our view, we’re putting the cart ahead of the horse.”
In the middle
Laura Johnson, director of the Heidelberg University water research program, said she would be somewhere in the middle of accepting or rejecting the order — believing that nutrient management plans could make a difference, if they were implemented in a practical way.
She said something big may be needed, geographically, “to light the fire,” but she described her position on the governor’s order as “in the middle.”
Cash said a report will be put together with each task force member’s input, and presented to the full commission prior to their Nov. 1 meeting. He thanked Kasich for bringing the matter before the commission, and said it’s been “an enlightening” process.
Tom Price, likewise, thanked the governor for sparking a lot of discussion among stakeholders, including farmers, but he said the governor’s plan, in its current form, probably isn’t the best one.
“Is it the right answer? Probably not,” Price said. “But I do believe that we’ve brought it forth, we’ve had stakeholders that have never been sitting at the table before and they’re here today.”
What’s the question?
Tim Derickson, interim director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture, said that the commission’s task is limited to deciding whether the eight watersheds under review are “distressed.”
“This is about watersheds in distress and the eight watersheds are what we really are debating,” Derickson said. “And beyond that is really beyond what this group is challenged to do.”
Some members of the group have disagreed, however, saying the rules and the designation are one and of the same.
Derickson is filling in for former Director David Daniels, who was fired last week over an apparent disagreement with the governor over the designation. Two other ODA staff members resigned, effective Nov. 1, after they were asked to do so.
Kasich also replaced two farmer-members from the commission, who said given the available information, they would have voted against the designation. The two new members said at the last full commission meeting, they favored the designation.
It’s unclear whether the governor would accept an amended or modified approach. During the signing ceremony for his order, he said he’d be willing to work with farmers if they truly found something “boneheaded” or lacking in “common sense.”
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