Ohio farmers in eight Maumee River watersheds could face a whole new regulatory reality in their daily farm operations following Gov. John Kasich’s announcement of a new Executive Order July 11.
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.
Campbell said a 2017 Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) report looked at voluntary conservation efforts over time in the Western Lake Erie watershed, which showed farmers were keeping 30 percent more phosphorus on fields and out of waterways since 2006.
“According to the NRCS report, voluntary stewardship practices are keeping 14.9 million pounds of phosphorus out of waterways each year – that’s enough phosphorus to grow 7.5 billion pounds (3.7 million tons) of algae,” Campbell said. “It clearly demonstrates that voluntary conservation programs are more readily accepted by farmers and provide a profound benefit in the countryside.”
Campbell credits voluntary conservation programs like the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP) for the unique partnership that exists between farmers and state regulatory agencies in Michigan, and for creating positive environmental results – results that show overzealous measures such as the Kasich order are unnecessary.
“MAEAP was developed by a coalition of farmers, commodity groups, state and federal agencies, and conservation and environmental groups; and it works” Campbell said.
According to Campbell, water-quality monitoring conducted by the National Center for Water Quality Research at Heidelberg University in southeast Michigan’s River Raisin, the state’s primary WLEB water-shed, show that voluntary on-farm practices were the biggest drivers of a 25 to 35 percent drop in phosphorus levels in that river in the last eight years.
“Those test results were confirmed by the State of Michigan,” Campbell said. “Michigan farmers in the WLEB achieved those results through MAEAP and other voluntary conservation programs through the farm bill as well as local and regional efforts, which assists farms of all sizes and all commodities to voluntarily minimize agricultural pollution risks.”
According to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development report, MAEAP’s voluntary approach has resulted in farmers taking a very proactive approach to improving overall water quality through conservation programs (see Table 1).