Ohioans weigh in on distressed watershed rule proposals

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Jed Bower, president of the Ohio Corn and Wheat Growers Association.
Jed Bower, president of the Ohio Corn and Wheat Growers Association.

REYNOLDSBURG, Ohio — Some 15 people from farm and nonfarm backgrounds testified Nov. 20 during a public hearing at the Ohio Department of Agriculture, where they commented on a set of rules that could potentially be applied to eight northwestern Ohio watersheds, if those watersheds are declared in distress.

Most of the people who testified took issue with the proposed changes and their impact on water quality and agriculture.

The rule package seeks to amend existing rules that apply to farmers in the Grand Lake St. Marys watershed in western Ohio, with practices the Ohio Department of Agriculture and the Kasich administration believe would improve the Lake Erie watersheds.

Most notably, the rule seeks to include commercial fertilizer in the state’s definition of “nutrients,” and it seeks to restrict fertilizer application in the same way as manure application. The rule package also requires farmers in distressed watersheds to have a nutrient management plan, if applying nutrients to more than 50 acres.

Industry concern

Jed Bower, president of the Ohio Corn and Wheat Growers Association, said it is clear  that the Ohio Legislature, in writing laws that define ag pollution, did not intend on including commercial fertilizer in that definition.

Bower said the Kasich administration, while acting on its own, “exercised poor decision making that resulted in extremely poor government, not deserved by the people of the state of Ohio and most certainly not deserved by our farming community.”

Many who spoke cautioned against comparing the two land masses. The Grand Lake St. Marys watershed encompasses roughly 50,000 acres near Grand Lake, compared to about 1.5 million acres in the eight watersheds that the governor wants declared distressed.

The changes being proposed would also rewrite the rules for the Grand Lake region, where many say the rules are working as intended.

Nick Rentz, president of the Lake Improvement Association at Grand Lake, said the distressed rules have been “a success story,” and he doesn’t want to see it compromised.

“I completely disagree with a statewide mandate on distressed watershed packages — that’s a silly thing to even propose,” said Rentz. “To compare 57,000 acres chock-full of animals with 1.8 million (acres) up in the western Lake Erie Basin — we’re talking about two completely different things here. … Please don’t change what’s working. We have a success story on our hands.”

The proposed rule change also includes an elimination of the date restrictions for winter manure application, and instead inserts specific winter conditions and precipitation events, in which fertilizer and manure are not to be applied.

Success story

But some landowners and farmers have argued that, indeed, the success of the Grand Lake cleanup should be applied on a broader scale.

Jack Albers, a resident of Grand Lake, said the accomplishments there ”should be viewed as a model for the state of Ohio,” and he cautioned against efforts that would “deter the hard work” and achievements that happened Grand Lake.

One of the strongest supporters of the rule proposal is Jim Zehringer, director of the Department of Natural Resources, who has argued on multiple occasions that nutrient management plans work, and that they achieve results.

But the new rules, including the requirement that each farmer in the proposed distressed watershed designation have a nutrient management plan — will come at a cost. The state’s own analysis of the rule change shows the need for additional employees to write and enforce the plans in the Lake Erie watersheds would cost millions of dollars for taxpayers and for farmers.

Cost factor

According to an Ohio Farm Bureau analysis presented at the hearing, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service would need 2,100 staff members at a cost of at least $1.8 billion, to accomplish the same efforts they undertook for Grand Lake.

The cost for a nutrient management plan can range from $3,000 for a simple plan, with an average cost of $8,100 for a comprehensive plan. In the eight watersheds, about 7,000 farms would be affected.

Multiple concerns have been raised throughout the water quality discussion, which came to a head in July, when the governor issued an executive order seeking to declare the watersheds in distress.

Along with cost, there are concerns with logistics of implementing the rules, whether they’re practical, whether the rules would result in the intended nutrient loss reduction, and whether the proposed rules exceed the legal authority of the state ag department.

Tony Seegers, spokesperson for the Ohio Farm Bureau, said “the proposed changes to the rules, especially including nutrients/commercial fertilizer, is outside the statutory authority granted to ODA by the General Assembly.”

Seegers said the state’s current definition of “agricultural pollution is clear, in that the legislature did not include commercial fertilizer and therefore, any rule going forward would be an unlawful expansion of the department’s authority.”

Former Ag Director David Daniels expressed similar concerns to Kasich’s team — mostly about the cost and logistics — but was fired in October, apparently for taking issue with the governor’s directive. Two other ODA staff members were asked to resign at the same time.

Different perspective

Matt Fisher, of the Lake Erie Foundation, said he supports the governor’s executive order, but has come to the realization it may make more sense to target a couple watersheds at first, versus the entire landmass.

“I’ve been to these meetings since August, and I can just feel that there’s not enough people or dollars to implement it in eight watersheds, especially in 2019. Let’s narrow down our scope, put more resources on it, make it happen, find some learnings in 2019 that will help us make changes to do the right thing in 2020.”

The rules are open for written or electronic comment, until 5 p.m. Nov. 20. Public comment can also be made Dec. 10, at the Statehouse, before the Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review.

The Ohio Soil and Water Commission will have final say on whether the watersheds are to be declared “in distress,” and on the rule proposals being considered. The commission tabled its vote during its last meeting, to allow more time to understand the rules, and has until Feb. 15 to make a decision.

A separate group within the Ohio Legislature is scheduled to meet Nov. 26. That group, known as the Toward a Cleaner Lake Erie Working Group, is exploring what the Legislature can do to help improve Lake Erie.

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