Task force weighs Ohio’s distressed watershed proposal

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Lake Erie water
Lake Erie waters, with Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial in the distance.

(the next meeting will be Oct. 4. An incorrect date was previously reported)

COLUMBUS — A group of Ohio farm, academic and conservation leaders met at the Ohio Department of Agriculture Aug. 30, to weigh in on whether eight northwestern Ohio watersheds should be declared watersheds in distress.

The task force was created by the Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Commission during that body’s July 19 meeting. At that meeting, commission members decided they needed more time to review an executive order signed by Gov. John Kasich, that would establish the distressed ruling and require farms within those watersheds to adopt and follow nutrient management plans.

Tom Price, who chairs the commission and is a task force member, said the science presented to the commission in favor of the distressed ruling needs to be reviewed, along with other available sciences.

He said the commission is faced with a big decision that could have implications across Ohio and in other states.

“Ohio is being watched almost nationwide on how this commission and subgroup is going to handle the requirements … this is no small task and no small responsibility,” Price said. “I think it behooves us to stand back and look at everything that is going on.”

Urgent issue

Task force chairman Fred Cash said the issue is “urgent” and he would like the group to move as quickly as possible, but he said it will take time to gather the necessary input. He said the task force will ultimately make a recommendation to the commission whether to approve, disapprove or to modify the distressed watershed designation.

The task force will meet again Oct. 4, and the commission is set to meet in November, although Cash said meeting dates can change if necessary. He had hoped the task force could reconvene within three weeks, but October was the first that all of the members were available.

Cash asked each member to come back with specific information. He asked Ohio State University’s ag dean, Dr. Cathann Kress, to review the science in the state’s report to the commission, and whether it shows the watersheds are in distress.

On right path

Kress told the task force she feels the work being done by farmers “is directionally correct,” but that there are still many unknowns. She testified before a legislative panel earlier in the week, reviewing the ongoing research of some 140 faculty, staff and students.

The central question, Kress told the Legislature, is “how do we sustain the ecosystem quality, viable agricultural production, and ensure a safe and affordable food and water supply for Ohio and the region, all at the same time?”

Kris Swartz, a commission member and part of the task force, said it’s important that new rules “get the buy-in” of farmers. He said farmers understand that some changes need to be made, but they are afraid to act when there’s “uncertainty in the science.”

Nikki Hawk, district administrator of the Mercer Soil and Water Conservation District, questioned whether the same distressed ruling that was used for Ohio’s Grand Lake St. Marys, would be effective for Lake Erie.

“We’re dealing with two different issues and sizes,” she said.

Working locally

Hawk said she’s also concerned about how landowner-conservation district relationships might change if a distressed ruling is made, and how the ruling would be implemented at the local level.

It is estimated that the distressed ruling in the governor’s order would affect some 2 million acres and 7,000 farms.

Hawk said an alternative might be to start with one or two watersheds, and then “tweak the other pieces of the puzzle” as progress is made.

Bill Knapke, a commission and task force member, said as he understands it, the task before the commission is to decide whether the watersheds are distressed, and whether the commission will support that ruling.

“We’re talking about the designation of watersheds in distress and nutrient management plans,” he said. “I think there’s larger changes that end up happening. Nutrient management plans are stepping stones toward step one or step two. … That’s how progress is made.”

Making progress

Although no firm timeline for voting on the governor’s order was established, Cash said, “it’s important that we show progress and that we are looking at these things seriously.”

He said he feels confident in the people who make up the task force, and is open to other input, as well.

At the same time that the group debates whether to approve the distressed designation, related rules are also moving through the Ohio rule-making process, intended to coincide with the designation, if commission members approve it.

Those rules were released Aug. 27 and are available for public comment on the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s website, at www.agri.ohio.gov.

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