By Jeffrey Lewis, attorney and research specialist, Ohio State University Agricultural & Resource Law Program
Ohio is thirsty for some quality H2O, but the legislature has recently struggled with how to get it. After debating two separate water quality bills for over a year, the Ohio House of Representatives and the Ohio Senate finally passed H.B. 7 in December. The bi-partisan bill aims to improve water quality in Ohio’s lakes and rivers but doesn’t establish a permanent H2Ohio Trust Fund as the House had first proposed.
Even so, H.B. 7 will help fund and implement Governor Mike DeWine’s H2Ohioprogram. DeWine unveiled his water quality plan in 2019 to help reduce phosphorus runoff, prevent algal blooms, and prevent lead contamination in Ohio’s waterways. In July 2019, the Ohio General Assembly invested $172 million to fund the H2Ohio initiative. H.B. 7 continues those efforts by creating a statewide Watershed Planning and Management Program and directing the Ohio Department of Agriculture to implement a pilot program to assist farmers and others in phosphorus reduction efforts.
Here’s a summary of the specifics included in H.B. 7, signed by Governor DeWine on Jan. 6.
Watershed planning and management program
The new Watershed Planning and Management Program established by the bill aims to improve and protect Ohio’s lakes and rivers. The Director of Agriculture will be responsible for appointing watershed planning and management coordinators throughout the seven watershed districts in Ohio. The coordinators will be responsible for identifying sources and areas of water with quality impairment, engaging in watershed planning, restoration, protection, and management activities, collaborating with other state agencies involved in water quality activities, and providing an annual report to the Director of Agriculture regarding their region’s watershed planning and management.
Certification program for farmers
H.B. 7 also establishes a certification program for farmers who use best practices to help minimize their impact on water quality. H.B. 7 requires the Director of Agriculture to undertake all necessary actions to ensure that assistance and funding are provided to farmers who participate in the certification program.
Watershed pilot program to reduce phosphorus in Ohio’s water
H.B. 7 authorizes but does not require the Department of Agriculture, in conjunction with the Lake Erie Commission, the Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Commission, and the Ohio State University Extension, to establish a pilot program that assists farmers, agricultural retailers, and soil and water conservation districts in reducing phosphorous and dissolved reactive phosphorous in a watershed. The program, if established, would be funded from the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s budget for water quality initiatives. Funding must be used for purchases of equipment, soil testing, implementation of variable rate technology, tributary monitoring, drainage management strategies, and implementation of nutrient best management practices.
Public record exemption for voluntary nutrient management plans
Currently, a person who owns or operates agricultural land may develop and implement a voluntary nutrient management plan. A voluntary nutrient management plan provides for the proper application of fertilizer. An individual that implements a proper voluntary nutrient management plan receives an affirmative defense in any civil lawsuit involving the application of the fertilizer. In addition to the affirmative defense offered by using a voluntary nutrient management plan, H.B. 7 specifies that the information, data, and associated records used in the development and execution of a voluntary nutrient management plan is not a public record and is not subject to Ohio’s laws governing public records.
Regional water and sewer districts expanded authority
In addition to political subdivisions, regional water and sewer districts will have the authority to make loans, grants, and enter into cooperative agreements with any person, which includes a natural person, a firm, a partnership, an association, or a corporation, for water resource projects.
Also, regional water and sewer districts will be able to expand to whom they can offer discounts to for water and sewer services. Currently, districts can only offer discounts to persons who are 65 or older and who are of low or moderate income or qualify for the homestead exemption. H.B. 7 allows those discounts to be offered to any person who is considered of low or moderate income or that qualifies for the homestead exemption.
CAUV eligibility of land used for biofuel production
Unrelated to water quality, H.B. 7 also modifies the requirements that land used in biofuel production must meet in order to be valued for property taxes at its current agricultural use value (CAUV). Currently, land used for biofuel production qualifies for the CAUV program if:
- The production facility is located on, or on property adjoining, farmland under common ownership; and
- at least 50% of the feedstock used in the production comes from land under common ownership or leasehold.
H.B. 7 makes three changes:
- Instead of the 50% feedstock requirement, House Bill 7 requires that, of the feedstock used in biofuel production, at least 50% must be “agricultural feedstock” (manure or food waste) and at least 20% of the “agricultural feedstock” must come from land under common ownership or leasehold.
- None of the feedstock used in biofuel production can include human waste.
- The biofuel production facility may be part of, or adjacent to, farmland that is under common leasehold or common ownership.