By Matt Reese
On July 12, Gov. Mike DeWine signed Senate Bill 52, which limits landowner’s abilities and opportunities to have wind and solar projects on their property. This is a concern, partly due to the precedent it sets — government taking of landowner rights without the consent of the landowner.
Of greater concern for agriculture is the recently introduced House Bill 349, which takes a cue from SB 52 with direct agricultural application. HB 349 enacts “section 903.021 of the Revised Code to prohibit the construction of a new or modification by expansion of an existing concentrated animal feeding facility under certain circumstances.”
These circumstances as spelled out in the bill are:
(1) The facility is located in the Maumee watershed.
(2) The director [of agriculture] determines that, in the preceding calendar year, the spring load of total phosphorus exceeded eight hundred sixty metric tons and the total dissolved reactive phosphorus exceeded one hundred eighty-six metric tons for the Maumee river as specified in the 2015 western basin of Lake Erie collaborative agreement.
The primary sponsors of the bill are Michael Sheehy (D-Oregon) and Paula Hicks-Hudson (D-Toledo). Non-ag Ohio has been very quick to repeatedly cast blame on agriculture for the state’s water quality woes. To their great credit, agriculture has stepped up, owned their role in the situation and invested massive amounts of money, time and research into addressing the issue. Yet, it sometimes seems the role of urban Ohio in this issue is largely dismissed. I have sat through many meetings where the hot spots of nutrient concentration in rivers and streams showing up near urban centers are quickly explained away, while the role of agriculture in the pollution problem is examined in great detail.
Agriculture is clearly a contributor to Ohio’s water quality problems, but so is urban Ohio and, in fact, so is anyone who lives in the state. Especially in the case of large rain events, the combined storm sewer releases from Ohio’s communities are a source of water/nutrient pollution too. The grim details of what precisely heads downstream from Ohio’s urban centers are largely unknown, though the phosphorus contributions are generally regarded to be low.
We are, though, privy to one specific issue recently divulged from the city of Maumee, on the banks of Ohio’s Maumee River flowing directly into Lake Erie. The city of Maumee (tucked in right beside Toledo and Oregon) was recently found to have been grossly — emphasis on gross — and regularly exceeding their sewage discharge allotment for the last two decades.
Legally, the city of Maumee is permitted to dump 25 million gallons of sewage overflow per year (which sounds significantly more horrific than the worst illegal livestock manure spills) into the Lake Erie Watershed. It has been determined, however, that the city’s outdated sewer has been spewing up to 150 million gallons of sewage directly into the Maumee River annually for the last 20 years.
“Farmers have been heavily scrutinized for their impact on Lake Erie and have answered that criticism with unprecedented efforts to help solve the problem. It is time to hold municipal administrations and their wastewater facilities to the same standards,” said Adam Sharp, executive vice president of Ohio Farm Bureau. “If a city’s wastewater infrastructure is failing, those issues should be addressed immediately with the same urgent action Ohio agriculture has taken to protect Ohio’s water quality.”
Maumee Mayor Rich Carr and Administrator Patrick Burtch told area news outlets that a worker came to administrators eight months ago to reveal the issue. Carr then reported the issue to the Environmental Protection Agency. According to Ohio Farm Bureau, City Law Director David Busick confirmed that Department of Public Service Sewer Division employees, who keep track of sewer discharge levels, did not comply with the law when they failed to self-report the incidences of annual sewer overflow in Maumee. The City Council has since approved an action plan that requires mandated maintenance upgrades and infrastructure replacement guidelines. The city has also been fined $29,936 by Ohio EPA, which can be applied to remediation steps. Residents of Maumee now face sharply higher water rates as the city moves forward to address the issue.
“We have always said that water quality issues are complex, involving many sources of nutrients, changing weather patterns and lack of data,” Sharp said. “We are certainly not absolving agriculture of its contribution to this challenge or responsibility in finding solutions, but what Maumee has been doing over the past two decades is disturbing and makes you wonder if other municipalities with equally run down sewer infrastructures are having similar issues.”
While Ohio’s farmers have shouldered most of the blame and taken incredible self-imposed steps to address the issue, Maumee and who-knows-how-many-other cities have been adamantly pointing a finger at Ohio agriculture with one hand, while flushing their issues downstream with the other. How many other small town/urban center water handling inadequacies need to come clean with regard to their dirty water deeds before we see a more balanced shift to discussion, legislation and finger pointing to the sum total of the problem from rural AND urban Ohio?
Hopefully HB 349 and other blame shifting, uninformed political tactics also end up flushed somewhere in the middle of Lake Erie, along with the rest of northern Ohio’s urban sewage overflow.