COLUMBUS — Frustrated by lawmakers’ refusal to consider a bill to get tougher on sources of agricultural pollution feeding Lake Erie’s chronic toxic algae problem, Gov. John Kasich on Wednesday took matters into his own hands with an executive order.
“This is just requiring farmers to figure out a way to manage their land in a more effective and environmentally friendly way,” the Republican governor said. “I believe that farmers want to do that.”
Under the order, his administration will ask the Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Commission at its July 19 meeting to designate eight watersheds or portions of watersheds with high phosphorous levels within the Maumee River Basin as “distressed.”
That would trigger the writing of rules affecting all agricultural nutrient sources, including such things as storage, handling, and application of manure; erosion and sediment control from the land; and other agricultural practices. Civil penalties could apply for violations.
David Daniels, director of the Department of Agriculture, estimated that the affected watersheds would represent more than 40 percent of the watershed of Lake Erie’s western basin in Ohio.
If the commission agrees with the designations, a lengthy rule-writing and approval process would be triggered. Mr. Daniels estimated that the system might not be in place until the 2020 crop season.
The order expects requests for distressed status for the Platter Creek, Little Flat Rock Creek, Little Auglaize River, Eagle Creek, Auglaize River, Blanchard River, St. Mary’s River, and Ottawa River watersheds, which are all part of the Maumee River Basin. Distressed status would be lifted only after the Department of Agriculture confirms the sustained recovery and improvement in the watershed.
Mr. Kasich also signed Senate Bill 299, sponsored by Sens. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green) and Sean O’Brien (D., Cortland), that sets aside $36 million to help address the algae problem, including some money to help farmers buy equipment and take other steps to reduce fertilizer runoff.
The Ohio Farm Bureau Federation praised the signing of Senate Bill 299 but criticized the process that led to the executive order.
“Agriculture was pretty much shut out of the opportunity to weigh in once the administration decided to go this executive order route,” bureau spokesman Joe Cornely said. “It’s hard to reconcile this process with the way Kasich has governed for nearly eight years.”
He said the amount of money earmarked out of the total $36 million in Senate Bill 299 strictly for farmers would not be nearly enough to address what he said would be 7,000 farms totaling 2 million acres.
Unlike a law passed by the legislature, an executive order survives only as long as the governor wills it.
Although Mr. Kasich insisted he believes Ohio has made progress, the administration has made it clear it doesn’t believe current voluntary efforts by farmers to reduce the amount of fertilizers washing off their land into the streams and rivers will allow the state to meet its commitment with Michigan and Ontario to reduce phosphorous runoff by 40 percent by 2025.
It has struggled to find a lawmaker willing to introduce a bill to change the definition of “agricultural pollution” to specifically include fertilizers. The administration also wants to expand statewide the maximum phosphorous discharge limit already applied to many wastewater treatment plants on the lake, something not tackled as part of the governor’s executive order.
The Ohio Environmental Council praised the order as a good step — with a lot more to do.
“The watersheds that are included in this executive order have a total phosphorous level of two to three times higher than the phosphorous reduction goals established in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement,” said Heather Taylor-Miesle, the council’s executive director.
Mr. Cornely disputed the suggestion that Ohio’s approach to date has relied on voluntary actions by farmers.
“There is no state as highly regulated as Ohio in terms of farming,” he said. “The narrative that says agriculture is unregulated is absolutely false. We also think there is room for voluntary efforts to be done in addition to what farmers have done for many years, spending their own money on things that are not required and are doing so voluntarily.”
Senate Bill 299 also provides funding to invest in research and monitoring of phosphorous levels, harmful algal growth, and toxicity levels; alternative uses for dredged sediment; and soil and conservation districts in the lake’s western basin.
Mr. Kasich remains opposed to the idea of borrowing $1 billion — $100 million a year over 10 years — to invest in improvements to wastewater and water treatment plants, water quality research, and better water resource management practices.
Under pressure by litigation, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency in March designated Lake Erie to be “impaired” under federal law. The question has been what will happen next, and farmers, the environmental community, lawmakers, and the administration haven’t been able to reach agreement.
Mike Ferner, coordinator for Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie, a group that sued in federal government to force the impairment designation, said the order will not have the effect the governor said he is seeking.
“Kasich’s statements today proved that he is doing all in his power to deflect attention away from the Confined Animal Feeding Operations [CAFOs] that annually dump hundreds of millions of gallons of untreated feces, urine, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria on fields draining into Lake Erie,” he said.
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