Ohio farmers in eight Maumee River watersheds could face a whole new regulatory reality in their daily farm operations following Governor John Kasich’s announcement of a new Executive Order Wednesday.
The order will likely dictate nutrient management including fertilizer and manure applications.
The order directs a number of state agencies, including the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA), to “initiate aggressive new action” toward further reduction of nutrient runoff from watersheds in Lake Erie’s Western Basin.
Saying that nutrient runoff from agricultural fertilizer applications is a leading contributor to harmful algal blooms that have plagued the western end of the lake, Kasich said the order is intended to kick efforts to reduce nutrient discharges from farm fields 40 percent by 2025 “into overdrive.”
“We’ve done a lot to ensure the health of Lake Erie, Ohio’s crown jewel, including investments of more $3 billion since 2011 to improve water quality in the lake and its watershed,” Gov. Kasich said. “But it’s clear that more aggressive action is needed, especially to reduce or eliminate the algae blooms that have marred the Western Basin for years.”
The new order requires ODA to consider eight Maumee River watersheds for official designation as “Watersheds in Distress” and to seek consent of the Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Commission.
Upon consent by the commission, the directors of the Ohio Department of Agriculture, Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Agency are ordered to recommend a rules package that establishes nutrient management requirements for phosphorus and all other nutrient sources.
These 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.
A “Watershed in Distress” designation can be removed only after the director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture has confirmed the sustained recovery, restoration and mitigation of factors leading to the original designation.
Expressing disappointment in Kasich’s announcement, the Ohio Farm Bureau estimates the order could regulate more than 2 million acres of northwest Ohio farmland.
Because the agricultural community was not included in the process, the organization said farmers are left with frustration, questions, and uncertainty on both the process and implications of this order.
“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. He also takes issue with Kasich’s alleged $3 billion investment to improve Lake Erie water quality, when a recent examination of the expenditures found that only 1 percent 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 asked. “We’re also curious why the order deals only with agriculture, but not other pieces of the water puzzle, especially since the administration has prioritized other water quality initiatives instead of farm conservation programs.”
Laura Campbell, manager of Michigan Farm Bureau’s Ag Ecology Department, called Kasich’s order very concerning, saying the focus on mandatory regulations is counter-productive to improvements already achieved through voluntary efforts.
“Considering the increased conservation and corresponding reduction in nutrient discharges that have already been achieved throughout the Western Lake Erie Basin (WLEB), it would seem obvious that farmers would prefer the carrot approach to implement the best practices for each farm, versus a one-size-fits-all stick approach under the Kasich order,” she said.