water quality

Battle over water reaching boiling point

Ohio Environmental Protection Agency wants to classify commercial fertilizer as an agricultural pollutant. Gov. Kasich appears primed to use executive orders to regulate farmers. A federal judge has threatened to assume authority over farming practices. Toledo’s mayor says Farm Bureau is unscrupulous, and editorial boards at major Ohio newspapers demand more from farmers.

“We are in a fight” is the blunt assessment of Jack Irvin, OFBF’s senior director of state and national policy as he describes the increasingly political debate over how to lessen agriculture’s impact on water quality.

Irvin has a preferred battlefield. “This is an incredibly complex issue. A deliberative approach in the General Assembly is far better than mandates from administrators or judges.”

The legislature jump-started the process with action on the Clean Lake 2020 plan. Farm Bureau supports the legislation and designated it a “Key Vote.” The Senate passed its version 33-0 in early June and the House is expected to soon move on a companion bill. Still, serious threats are brewing.

Months before the introduction of Clean Lake 2020, Ohio EPA proposed legislation to define commercial fertilizer as an agricultural pollutant and declare the Western Lake Erie Basin to be a “watershed in distress.” Farm Bureau expressed extreme concern over the plan. Ohio EPA was unable to secure a single legislator to sponsor its bill. The Kasich administration then proposed enacting its plan through executive order. In a related development, immediately prior to Ohio EPA’s run at legislation, the agency reversed itself by declaring the open waters of Lake Erie “impaired,” despite stating for years it had no scientific basis to do so.

Simultaneously, a federal judge overseeing a lawsuit by activist organizations to force the impairment designation warned the U.S and Ohio EPAs to act. U.S. District Judge James Carr, quoted in The (Toledo) Blade, said he wanted the agencies to become “truly aggressive.” If he deems their actions insufficient, Carr indicated that he could reluctantly act from the bench: “We hit with a sledgehammer. We don’t operate with a scalpel. Candidly, as a judge, I would exhort those agencies (to do more).”

As these consequential issues played out in all three branches of government, Toledo Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz chose to fan the flames. Quoted by The Blade during a water quality conference, Kapszukiewicz said, “We live in a state where our legislature is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Farm Bureau.” He added, “In some ways, were you to impose sinister motives to them (big agriculture), they’ve pulled off quite a ruse. They get away with it all of the time.”

Irvin said as the political fight heats up, Farm Bureau will be vocal, reminding policymakers and the public that it’s not only farmers and not only Ohio that must tackle water quality issues, and that science should direct policy actions. Still, Irvin is proud that farmers are stepping up their efforts to reduce nutrient runoff. Data shows meaningful change in conservation and management practices are helping, and he wishes farmers would get more credit for what they’ve done, even though it will take time to see the results.

“The fact is, the lake is still green, and so even more will be expected of farmers,” Irvin said. “Farm Bureau’s job is to make sure those expectations are realistic and to make sure farmers have workable options.”

Provisions in the Clean Lake 2020 plan

• Targeted Phosphorus Reduction Fund: Funding of up to $20 million to establish programs in subwatersheds of the Western Lake Erie Basin that have been identified to have high levels of phosphorus. Programs may include purchasing of equipment for subsurface placement of nutrients, equipment for nutrient placement based on soil testing and variable rate technology, water management efforts, manure conversion technologies, tributary monitoring and edge-of-field drainage structures.
• Soil & Water Conservation Support Fund: Funding of $3.5 million to support county SWCDs in the WLEB for staffing and to assist in soil testing, nutrient management plan development, enhanced filter strips and water management and other conservation support.
• Funding for Ohio Sea Grant/Stone Lab research.
• Funding for projects to reduce lake disposal of dredging materials.
• A separate proposal has also been introduced addressing an Ohio Clean Water bond issue.

Ohio Farm Bureau membership