By Matt Reese
This summer Governor John Kasich signed an executive order targeting eight sub-watersheds in the western basin of Lake Erie that will be considered for designation under state law as “Watersheds in Distress.” These include: Platter Creek, Little Flat Rock Creek, Little Auglaize River, Eagle Creek, Auglaize River, Blanchard River, St. Mary’s River, and Ottawa River.
To officially make the “distressed” designation, the governor-appointed Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Commission (OSWCC) needs to approve it. The OSWCC met and decided that more information was needed to make the decision and yesterday the OSWCC’s Western Lake Erie Basin Watershed In Distress Task-force/subcommittee met at the Ohio Department of Agriculture to allow members to share their thoughts.
“Ohio is being watched almost nationwide on how this sub-committee is going to handle this distressed watershed designation. It has implications far beyond the western basin of Lake Erie,” said Tom Price, chair of the OSWCC. “I look at this as a great opportunity for us to bring together the very best minds and the very best ideas. There is no question that we all want clean water for everyone, but this problem didn’t happen in a short period of time. I want to get a bigger picture of this so we can make a real change. At the end of the day I think we need more input than putting together x number of nutrient management plans. We are not doing our task if we don’t look at all of the things involved.”
Though there is no timeline in place, the Task Force is charged with either recommending to the OSWCC to move forward with the distressed designation for the suggested eight sub-watersheds, not recommend the distressed designations or suggest modifications to the designations.
At the meeting, Cathann Kress, dean of the Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences, gave an overview of the wide range of water quality related research taking place in Ohio.
“There are a few things we know from the research, there are a number of things that are rather inconclusive and there are things that we know in some parts of the state but that we don’t necessarily know about in this basin. It is clear there are a number of dynamics that are playing into this,” Kress said. “With the practices that have been implemented it appears that we are directionally correct, but it is very difficult at this point to determine how long this progress will take.”
In addition, Nikki Hawk, president of the Ohio Association of Soil and Water Conservation District Employees with the Mercer Soil & Water Conservation District, shared her thoughts based on her experiences working in the Grand Lake St. Marys Watershed since it received a distressed designation in 2011.
“Soil and Water Conservation Districts in Ohio have always been, and will continue to be, locally led and I think it will look very different in each district and each watershed how things will be implemented. The distressed designation for Grand Lake St. Marys definitely changed the way Mercer County [SWCD] did business and the way we interacted with producers. In some ways I would say the distressed designation for the lake was a blessing in disguise, and in some ways I would say that you cannot take any successes we have had there and extrapolate that you would have the same success within the basin. We are dealing with two very different issues and different scales,” Hawk said. “In Grand Lake, it is 57,000 acres as opposed to the proposed eight sub-watersheds of nearly 1.8 million acres. Also, the distressed designation for Grand Lake was very different from the way the proposed distressed designation is for these eight sub-watersheds. Grand Lake had very specific requirements about when manure could not be applied, there was a requirement for four months of storage and there was a requirement for a nutrient management plan. As I manage my staff and work with partners in Mercer County, I do think that the nutrient management plan has been an excellent tool. My staff has been to every farm and we are now in the second round going around and updating all of those plans. My concern deals with the scale and the inconsistency between the Grand Lake distressed rules with the designation being proposed by the governor.”
Hawk pointed out the Grand Lake distressed designation was focused on manure and the Lake Erie designations include commercial fertilizer — a very different scenario. She pointed out that research shows water quality is heading in a positive direction since the distressed designation in Grand Lake Saint Marys, but making comparisons may not be fair.
“I think that [nutrient management plans were] a very important piece of the puzzle. I do not think you can say we’ll see the same improvement with water quality with nutrient management plans in Lake Erie. I think it is more than that. We had upwards of $25 million in direct cost share dollars to our producers to install things like manure storage and other practices,” Hawk said. “One thing I would propose is that if the OSWCC really thinks this could make a difference in water quality that maybe we start with one or two watersheds, develop a blueprint as to how it would work and then slowly phase in how it would work in other watersheds, tweaking all of those pieces to the puzzle as we move along.”
Hawk also cautioned against expectations for a quick fix if nutrient management plans are required in the eight sub-watersheds.
“I don’t want anyone to think that by requiring nutrient management plans we will have a pristine lake tomorrow. It is not going to happen,” she said. “But I also don’t think having a nutrient management plan should be considered a burden to any producer. It is a good management tool to help you move forward.”
The task force plans to meet again to continue the discussion in October.