(Note: The date of the executive order has been corrected to July 11.)
REYNOLDSBURG, Ohio — A group of governor-appointed soil and conservation leaders voted today to send a portion of Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s executive order on Lake Erie to a subcommittee — postponing a decision on whether watersheds in northwest Ohio should be declared distressed.
The Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Commission spent two hours listening to stakeholder testimony and discussing the order among themselves, before voting 4-2 in favor of more research and more time.
The subcommittee will be led by commission member Fred Cash, with additional members still to be named.
On July 11, the governor called for eight watersheds to be declared distressed, and for the Ohio Department of Agriculture to develop rules to improve nutrient management on some 6,500 farms in the region, covering about 2 million acres.
The Ohio Farm Bureau and Ohio Rep. Brian Hill, R-Zanesville, House Ag Committee chairman, said more time is needed before making a decision this big, and that the decision-makers need to hear from the farmers the rules will affect.
Hill criticized the Kasich administration for “a lack of transparency and lack of input” in the executive order. He also spoke out against the order during a news conference July 18 at the statehouse, along with Senate Ag Chairman Bob Hackett, and House Speaker Ryan Smith.
Yvonne Lesicko, spokesperson for the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, said the Ohio EPA presented “skewed data” to the commissioners to argue for a distressed ruling. She said the EPA should have also included data that showed an improvement in the region, and been more inclusive.
Joe Logan, president of the Ohio Farmers Union, commended the governor on the executive order and his “prompt action” in trying to clean up Lake Erie.
Various groups from the Lake Erie fishing industry, Ohio Environmental Council, and the City of Toledo also spoke in favor of the order, saying they have had enough with the algae fight.
The subcommittee will report back to the commission as soon as it has more information, within a six- to nine-month period.
“I think by next year at this time we could have very high input from the very best minds we could put together on this,” said Chairman Tom Price.
Ohio Department of Agriculture Director David Daniels said he had hoped the committee would approve the full order from the governor today, but it became apparent they wanted more time.
“Obviously we had hoped for the designation today but we’re going to continue with filing the rules through the CSI (Common Sense Initiative) and JCARR (Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review) process and hopefully the committee will meet and bring back their recommendations at some point,” Daniels said.
Kasich on Friday had appointed two new members to the commission, who both voted against postponing the watershed distressed ruling.
Kate Bartter, one of the new appointees, encouraged a distressed vote, saying the members were basically being asked to vote on science and numbers.
But other members said they were not provided the complete science — and they questioned some of what they were provided.
“The lack of transparency here is absolutely appalling,” said member Kent Stuckey, adding that the two or so days members were given to consider a vote was “completely unacceptable and not good rule making.”
“I’ve been around long enough that I know that you can make data say anything you want it to say,” Stuckey added.
One of the commission members who was replaced, Dennis Corcoran, of Ross County, said he was notified on Friday that he was not being re-appointed for another term, and that the governor’s office told him they were “going in another direction.”
“I was qualified for it before. I guess maybe I still am, but they went in another direction,” said Corcoran, an Ohio State University graduate in agronomy, and a beef farmer.
Corcoran said had he gotten to vote on the matter, he would have been against it based on the information he had at the time.
Cost to farmers
While farmers have been doing many new things to improve water quality, they are concerned that additional mandates will be costly, and could put some out of business.
During testimony to the Legislature in June, on the state’s fertilizer law, assistant ODA Director Tim Derickson said that if he were to take off his ODA hat and speak as a dairy farmer, it’s true that regulations are hurting the industry, especially smaller dairy farms that can’t always afford to comply.
“That’s a community (dairy) that they’re hurting. …The regulations that we put on them — we can make it pretty impossible for some of these guys to operate.”
Derickson said it’s critical that farmers be provided funding when they’re asked to do more, and that regulations are already causing some to exit the industry.
Harold Neuenschwander, president of the Ohio Federation of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, said the vote will give more time for all stakeholders, including farmers, to have input.
“There was a lot of things that seemed to be rushed through without ample discussion and input from the proper people and this is just going to slow things down and put the brakes on so we can talk it through, think it through and hopefully come up with the best solution,” Neuenschwander said.
Had the governor’s order been approved by the commission, Neuenschwander said there were some “immediate affects” he feared would hurt farmers before they had a chance to prepare.
He said the commission will also need to consider the cost and time it will take for all farmers in the eight watersheds to develop nutrient management plans. He said there aren’t even enough people in Ohio approved to write the amount of plans that would have been required, in such a short time.
But in the end, the commission could still declare the watersheds in distress.
“It’s very possible,” Neuenschwander said. “Hopefully things can be negotiated so that it is done better, and more thought through.”