Legislators, officials make their cases on H2Ohio funding

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A dock at Lake Erie
(Farm and Dairy file photo)

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine suggested a $240 million budget for H2Ohio over the next two years, up from the original $172 million for the program’s first two years. But by the time the budget bill cleared the House, legislators had cut the program’s budget down, sticking with a similar level of funding as before.

Now, as the Senate considers the bill, legislators will have to consider whether to go with the funding the House recommends, or make further adjustments.

Department directors and some environmentalists and clean water advocates argue the additional funding would allow them to take on more projects and expand on the work done in the first two years. Those in favor of the House cuts say they want to keep the program going, but would rather continue a similar level of spending.

Cut back

DeWine sought $46 million in H2Ohio funding for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, nearly $50 million for the department of agriculture and $25 million for the department of natural resources each year.

The House maintained the proposed funding for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, but cut back to $10 million per year for the Ohio EPA and only guaranteed just under $40 million per year for the ag department. The ag department, however, will be able to go back to the controlling board to request the additional $10 million per year.

Rep. Paula Hicks-Hudson, D-Toledo, offered an amendment to restore the cuts to H2Ohio before the bill passed, but House Republicans largely rejected the amendment.

Rep. Darrell Kick, R-Loudonville, said the $10 million for the department of agriculture is still there, but legislators want to the department to explain why it needs more funding to add oversight.

He also pointed out the Ohio EPA will get a little bit of a bump in its H2Ohio funding over the last budget, and added that the agency is already working on projects across the entire state.

“We do believe that there’s going to be … money coming from the feds as well, so those projects are still going to happen,” Kick said.

EPA

The additional funding the Ohio EPA seeks would more be more than five times the funding it had for the first two years. The increase would allow the agency to take on more projects statewide.

“We know the needs of Ohio’s communities for wastewater and drinking water projects are substantial, and we are confident that we can put all of our H2Ohio dollars to work for the benefit of Ohioans,” said Ohio EPA director Laurie Stevenson in April 27 testimony to the Senate Local Government and Elections committee.

In the first year, the Ohio EPA used more than $8.5 million H2Ohio dollars and an additional $23 million of other state, local and federal funds, for drinking water and wastewater projects, replacing or removing lead service line and home sewage treatment system and installing monitors and gauges for stream quality data.

In fiscal year 2021, the agency plans to invest approximately $7.3 million in H2Ohio funding to expand these projects to more counties and communities.

Cuts in the House version of the bill would limit the number of projects the Ohio EPA could take on through fiscal years 2022 and 2023, Stevenson said.

Groups including The Nature Conservancy and Ohio Environmental Council Action Fund have urged the Senate to restore the full funding for H2Ohio in the original proposed budget.

“H2Ohio was designed with three ‘buckets’ of funding: natural infrastructure improvements, agricultural initiatives, and community water projects,” wrote Bill Stanley, Ohio State Director for The Nature Conservancy, in an April 21 statement. “Like three legs of a stool, they are meant to work together to improve water quality for Ohioans, no matter where they live.”

Agriculture

Ohio Department of Agriculture director Dorothy Pelanda told the committee in the same hearing that the proposed funding increase for the department’s portion of H2Ohio funding was to expand the program into another 10 counties, and implement mandatory provisions of House Bill 7, a bill passed in 2020 that creates a state watershed planning and management program.

The goal is to eventually expand the H2Ohio program to the whole state. Farmers in the original 14 counties have committed to enrolling in the program for three years.

Using best management practices for just one year, Pelanda said, would not result in a culture change, or a significant change in phosphorus runoff, so the three year commitment is important. The additional funds would both continue funding the 1,800 farmers already enrolled, and allow another 1,200 farmers to enroll.

Additionally, House Bill 7, which passed the legislature in late 2020, includes a proposal that the director of agriculture create a watershed pilot program.

An amendment introduced in the final version of the House’s budget bill would take another $4 million out of H2Ohio’s already-reduced budget to support that program. Pelanda said while the department supports the pilot program, it has concerns about the way the amendment is written.

“Our team estimates that that will result in a loss of over 100,000 acres of cropland in the H2Ohio program, should this amendment stand as written,” Pelanda said.

An Ohio Department of Agriculture spokesperson told Farm and Dairy the department would rather see H2Ohio and the program under House Bill 7 funded the way the executive budget recommended.

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Reporter Sarah Donaldson is a former 4-Her and a Mount Union graduate from Columbiana County, Ohio. She enjoys playing and writing music, cooking, and storytelling in many forms. She can be reached at 800-837-3419 or sarah@farmanddairy.com.

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