By Matt Reese
Today Governor John Kasich signed an executive order to take action on water quality in Lake Erie with Ohio’s agriculture in the crosshairs. The measures will impact roughly 7,000 farmers and over 2 million acres in northwest Ohio.
“This is just requiring farmers to figure out a way to manage their land in a more effective and more environmentally friendly way. I believe the farmers want to do that. Sometimes some of them do not know exactly what that means. To put a plan in place where we can fund them on whatever it takes to do that makes a lot of sense,” Kasich said. “[But] if the agricultural community says we are going to do nothing, that is not acceptable.”
The executive order signed by Kasich targets eight watersheds in the western basin of Lake Erie that will be considered for designation under state law as “Watersheds in Distress,” based on their high nutrient levels, especially phosphorous. These include:
- Platter Creek
- Little Flat Rock Creek
- Little Auglaize River
- Eagle Creek
- Auglaize River
- Blanchard River
- St. Marys River
- Ottawa River.
The Ohio Department of Agriculture is directed by this order to consider these watersheds for the official designation “Watersheds in Distress” and to seek consent of the Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Commission, as required by law. Watersheds receiving this designation will require the farmers within them to develop and implement nutrient management plans.
“It will be our responsibility to work with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Health, and Department of Natural Resources, look at the data they provide us, and make recommendations to the Soil and Water Commission about whether or not a watershed should be declared distressed. If that happens then we will submit rules…that will deal with what will be required for those watersheds in distress, very similar to what has happened with Grand Lake St. Marys,” said David Daniels, director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture. “The nutrient management plans require regular soil testing and every operator farming over 50 acres will be required to have one of those for their farming operation sometime before the 2020 crop season. Hopefully everyone recognizes that a lot of people already have nutrient management plans and they are probably already compliant with the law. They will have to report to us that they have them and then we go through a process to make sure they are being followed.”
These plans include rules for the use, storage, handling and control of nutrients and the development of management plans for all agricultural land and operations within each designated watershed. If implemented, a “Watershed in Distress” designation can only be removed after the director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture has confirmed the sustained recovery, restoration and mitigation of factors leading to the original designation.
Leaders in Ohio’s agriculture watched a press conference held by Governor John Kasich with great concern. Agriculture groups were not consulted on the plans for the executive order and not asked to participate in the announcement.
“We are pretty disappointed that agriculture got shut out of this process. The governor came into office on the promise of transparent and open government and we did not see that in this process. If there had been more open conversation things might have turned out differently, but they didn’t,” said Joe Cornely, with the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation. “Now we are looking through the executive order and trying to figure out what it means. We are going to file a public records request so we can get more information because this two-page executive order doesn’t really tell us what farmers are facing.
“On the assumption that this does go into effect or parts of it actually go into effect, our biggest concerns are about resources and time. With 7,000 farms and 2 million acres, that is a significant amount of farmers and land. How do you implement this if it actually becomes law and the changes that this executive order is mandating? How do you get the farmers trained? How do you pay for all of this? As this develops, those are questions we are going to be raising. If we have to comply, we have to comply, but how? That is the biggest thing.”
In addition to the use of executive action on this issue, the order will likely increase the bureaucratic red tape and it is not clear that science was being used to determine the watersheds being targeted.
“Today, Governor Kasich and administration officials made it seem that if farmers do a nutrient management plan for their farm, Lake Erie will never see an algal bloom again. That is wrong,” said Tadd Nicholson, Ohio Corn and Wheat Growers Association executive director. “What is true is that farmers have adopted best management practices including nutrient management plans, have invested millions of dollars in research and education, and even supported reasonable regulations to address water quality.”
In addition to the measures outlined in the executive order, Kasich also signed bipartisan legislation known as Clean Lake 2020. The bill will invest significant new resources to protect water quality throughout the state, providing up to $20 million in a targeted phosphorus reduction fund, $3.5 million to support soil testing and the development of nutrient management plans, among other provisions. Clean Lake 2020 enjoyed broad support from Ohio agriculture.
“We were big supporters of Clean Lake 2020. We were very encouraged when it passed unanimously in both the Senate and the House. We encouraged lawmakers to vote in favor of that. What we like about that is that it recognizes the complex solutions we are going to need to find on farms and it recognizes it will take time and money to make that happen,” Cornely said. “Clean Lake 2020 puts resources on the ground, but I don’t think the money in Clean Lake 2020 is sufficient to cover the massive number of farmers and ground this [executive order] could apply to.”
The Kasich administration unsuccessfully lobbied to include the regulatory measures in Clean Lake 2020, but after being turned down by the legislature, Kasich pursued an executive order for the other regulations issued today.
“Although Governor Kasich has worked productively with our farmers in the past, the administration is now acting without our input,” said Kirk Merritt, Ohio Soybean Association executive director. “Farmers are willing to do what needs to be done to solve this problem, but now we’re not even being invited to the table.”
In recent years, Ohio farmers have implemented new best management practices on their fields to protect water quality while also funding research and education initiatives such as the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program, edge-of-field testing and an update of the tri-state fertility guide. For more information about what Ohio farmers are doing, please visit formyfarm.com.
Now, instead of proactive efforts, Ohio agriculture is being forced into a reactive position based on Kasich’s executive order today.
“We can’t even react to the specific regulations he’s proposing; we haven’t seen them,” said Adam Sharp, executive vice president of Ohio Farm Bureau. “We’re also curious why the order deals with only agriculture and not other pieces of the water puzzle, especially since the administration has prioritized other water quality initiatives instead of farm conservation programs.”
The Kasich administration said it has invested more than $3 billion to improve Lake Erie water quality. But an examination of the expenditures, reported by Cleveland Public Broadcasting station WCPN, found that only 1% of that money was used to address agriculture’s portion of the water quality challenge.
“If we weren’t a priority for state resources, why are we a priority for state regulation?” Sharp said.
View Tuesday’s press conference in its entirety.