Ohio lawmakers recently passed a bill that legislators and groups involved in water quality efforts say is an important step forward for the state.
Near the end of the legislative session, Dec. 17, House Bill 7 passed its final vote. It heads to Gov. Mike DeWine’s desk now. As the state approaches the end of the H2Ohio program’s first year, supporters say the bill will create more infrastructure for monitoring and managing those efforts. The bill establishes a State Watershed Planning and Management Program.
As part of this program, the director of agriculture will categorize watersheds in the state and appoint watershed planning and management coordinators in each region. The watershed districts and coordinators will help collect data and coordinate local and statewide efforts on water quality issues.
The bill would also give the department of agriculture the option to establish a pilot program to assist farmers, ag retailers and soil and water conservation districts in reducing phosphorus in watersheds. Whether or not the pilot program is established will depend on funding.
“While this bill has changed quite a bit … it still seeks to achieve the same goal: cleaner water and soil for Ohio,” said Rep. Haraz Ghanbari (R-Perrysburg), one of the bill’s sponsors, in Dec. 17 testimony to the House.
The bill’s other sponsor, Rep. John Patterson (D-Jefferson), told Farm and Dairy he is hoping once the pandemic and resulting budget challenges are in the past, the state will be able to return to the program and make it more robust.
“If we’d have had the money, this would have gone through a year ago in June,” Patterson said. “Ohio is a key player in the effort to provide quality water for people not only in our state, but in the surrounding areas.”
He said creating more infrastructure to help monitor and assist water quality efforts is the next step towards addressing water quality challenges.
The bill underwent major changes between its introduction in 2019 and passing the legislature Dec. 17 — largely due to budgets tightening during the pandemic. The initial version was focused on creating an H2Ohio Trust Fund that would have provided ongoing funding for the H2Ohio program.
Senate lawmakers amended the bill to include all provisions of Senate Bill 2. That’s where language creating the watershed program came from. It also removed sections creating the fund.
“It’s the best we could do given the circumstances, but we’re doing something. That’s the important thing,” Patterson said.
Rep. Paula Hicks-Hudson (D-Toledo) spoke Dec. 17, on behalf of Patterson, who tested positive for COVID-19 10 days prior. She said while the bill isn’t perfect, it is an important step forward for water quality in Ohio.
Multiple agriculture commodity groups and environmental groups applauded the bill’s passage or testified in support of it earlier on.
In a Dec. 14 H2Ohio update, Dorothy Pelanda, director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture, said the bill’s passing in the Senate shows the legislature’s commitment to water quality and the H2Ohio program.
Joy Mulinex, of the Lake Erie Commission, said the $172 million that the general assembly allocated to H2Ohio for fiscal years 2020 and 2021 is already committed for the program. Mulinex said they were unable to answer questions about future funding, as the next biennial budget is still being developed.
Pelanda said the department of agriculture has enough funding for next year to continue working in the 14 counties it opened the program to this year, based on the commitments farmers in those counties have made. The program involves providing incentives for farmers to use best management practices that help reduce nutrient runoff.
The department is also hoping to expand the program to an additional 10 counties in the Lake Erie region, starting with basic nutrient management plans.
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