The Senate Agriculture Committee this week kicked off the Legislature’s consideration of Senate Bill 494, legislation to continue the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP) and renew the fees paid by farmers and agribusinesses to support the program.
Agricultural and environmental groups provided verbal testimony and submitted cards of support or opposition to the bill. Noticeably absent was the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD).
“We have proactively reached out to the department on this issue since February, asking for recommendations and feedback on the program,” said bill sponsor and committee chair, Sen. Kevin Daley. “While I appreciate the department stating they are hoping to work with us going forward, I think it’s unfortunate that they are not here with suggestions today.”
Groups showing support at the hearing included: Dairy Farmers of America, GreenStone Farm Credit Services, Michigan Agri-Business Association, Michigan Allied Poultry Industries, Michigan Corn Growers Association, Michigan Farm Bureau, Michigan Milk Producers Association, Michigan Pork Producers Association, Michigan Soybean Association, Michigan Vegetable Council and Potato Growers of Michigan.
Among those opposing: MDARD, Michigan Agriculture Advancement, Michigan Environmental Council (MEC), Sierra Club and Freshwater Future.
Testifying first before the five-member committee was Michigan Farm Bureau, represented by Legislative Counsel Rebecca Park and Agriculture Ecology Manager Laura Campbell.
Campbell shared that within the last three years, more than 12,000 farms have started the process of working through MAEAP. This is in addition to the nearly 3,500 farms that have completed 6,000 verifications.
“While MAEAP helps farmers protect water quality, it also provides other environmental benefits, such as safe fuel and chemical storage, emergency plan development, integrating safe and effective pest management, and responsibly caring for everything from livestock to wildlife habitats,” Campbell explained. “This is because of the way the program was built: it began and still operates as a partnership between farmers, conservation districts, universities, and state and federal agencies.”
Following their remarks, Sen. Roger Victory asked where Michigan ranks in its conservation efforts compared to other states around the Western Lake Erie Basin.
“Understanding the loading of phosphorus into Lake Erie, depending on the source and depending on the state is very different,” Campbell said. “Between 80 to 90 percent of the phosphorus coming into the basin from say, the Maumee River, comes from non-point sources like golf courses, lawns, farms and anything you can’t identify as a specific source.”
“Michigan is much more of a mixed bag, with phosphorus that comes in from the Detroit River and from direct discharges made by industry and wastewater treatment plants, as well as non-point sources.”
She also referenced progress made on the phosphorus reduction agreement between Michigan, Ohio and Ontario, Canada that set an interim phosphorus reduction goal of 20 percent by 2020.
“Michigan has achieved that interim goal and it has been in large part because of those point source discharges that were able to implement new technology to turn it off,” Campbell explained. “And we have made progress on our non-point source reductions.
“MAEAP is a really central component of Michigan’s Domestic Action Plan for addressing non-point source phosphorus discharge into Lake Erie.”
Campbell said that farmers who have been verified in MAEAP in the Western Lake Erie Basin have exceeded the plan’s goals for sediment and nutrient loss reduction from farm fields.
Responding to a question then asked by Sen. Winnie Brinks, Park went on to say that because the legislation utilizes the Ag Pollution Prevention Fund, it provides an opportunity to utilize the MAEAP advisory committee and determine areas of the state like the Western Lake Erie Basin, that need additional focus on non-point source pollution prevention.
Sen. Brinks also asked if the program could be doing more to improve environmental outcomes.
Campbell reminded the committee that, “Farmers pay the fees that pay for this program.”
She said that while MAEAP’s annual budget is around $7.5 million, only $700,000 of it is state-funded; the balance coming from the fees paid by farmers and agribusinesses.
“We would love for MAEAP to do more, the challenge is always money,” Campbell said. “You can’t put people on the ground—which is what this program depends on—if you don’t pay them.”
Later in the hearing, Sen. Brinks commented that, “It seems like…it would behoove us to take a look at our appropriations for this, that supplement or complement the funds that are received from farmers.”
The Michigan Environmental Council, the only opposing group choosing to speak before the committee, said they have two primary concerns. The first being that the bill provides MAEAP-verified farms surface water protection through a liability provision. Current law offers that protection for ground water only, but one could also argue that it’s implied within other sections of the law.
MEC Program Director Tom Zimnicki claimed that “This is concerning because the bill does not allocate adequate resources for monitoring to verify that they are not causing surface water issues.
“And in fact, we know from anecdotal research from places like Michigan State that there is not necessarily any difference when it comes to a MAEAP verified farm vs a non-verified farm in terms of water quality.”
Campbell countered that while valuable water quality data can be gleaned over time to measure environmental outcomes, nutrient dynamics are too complex to try to correlate measurements taken at a point in time with a singular source like a farm’s activities.
Michigan Environmental Council’s second concern is shifting programming from the Freshwater Protection Fund and to the Agriculture Pollution Prevention Fund.
“I gotta admit, there are actually some pretty okay things with the changes that were made to the Ag Pollution Prevention Fund,” he said. “The problem is that there is no money in that fund.”
Within the legislation, amendments clarify that not only can the Agriculture Pollution Prevention Fund receive money from any source including state appropriation or federal funds, but that it also must receive a minimum of 10% of any money appropriated to the state's Clean Water Fund.
It is unclear if Senate Bill 494 will receive further consideration or a vote by the committee prior to the Legislature adjourning for summer recess on June 24.