Ohio Agriculture Reacts To Lake Erie Impairment Designation

From Ohio Ag Net

Today, Ohio EPA released the draft 2018 water quality report that outlines the general condition of Ohio’s waters and includes a list that identifies impaired waters that are not meeting their federal or state water quality goals, as well as waters that have improved to meet federal standards.

In the draft for 2018, the Agency is proposing to designate the open waters of Lake Erie’s Western Basin (from the Michigan/Ohio state line to the Marblehead Lighthouse) as impaired for recreation due to harmful algae and drinking water due to occurrences of microcystin. Previously, only the shoreline area of the Western Basin and drinking water intakes had been designated as impaired.

“We have taken unprecedented steps in recent years to put Lake Erie on a better trajectory — including investing more than $3 billion to improve its water quality,” said Craig W. Butler, Ohio EPA Director. “Governor Kasich takes his responsibility to protect the lake very seriously. While designating the open waters of the Western Basin as impaired does not provide, as some suggest, a magic bullet to improve the lake, the State remains committed to our obligations under the Clean Water Act and to examine emerging science and practices that we can put in place to help improve it.”

Ohio EPA’s decision to list the open waters of Lake Erie as impaired will have no immediate impact on farmers or the lake’s water quality, according to the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation.

“Our biggest worry is that the public may get the impression that this is the silver bullet that will eliminate harmful algal blooms. It won’t,” said Adam Sharp, executive vice president of Ohio Farm Bureau.

The professional consensus is that the designation in and of itself means little. It does not create mandatory actions, nor does it provide federal money. It excludes Canada’s role in protecting the lake. It also will create a long and complicated bureaucratic process that may impede current progress on reducing harmful algal blooms.

Farm Bureau’s analysis suggests the regulatory and legal process could take 5 to 7 years before actual nutrient reduction steps would be taken. Further, uncertainty over what actions might be required in the distant future may cause municipalities, farmers and others in the regulated community to question their current efforts to improve water quality.

“It’s hard to reach the goal line when no one can explain the rules or even tell you where the goal line is,” Sharp said.

Farm Bureau has never opposed the designation, but the organization has promoted the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement as a preferable plan for improving water quality. This agreement maps out specific targets and strategies to attain a 40% reduction in phosphorus loading into the lake by 2025. It was signed by the United States and Canada, and Ohio is already implementing its portion of the agreement.

Additionally, multiple federal and Ohio laws regulate farming practices to reduce nutrient runoff from farm fields. Along with compliance with these regulations, farmers are taking many voluntary steps to protect water. Farm organizations have invested millions of dollars into research that identifies farming practices that are environmentally friendly. The most recent is a collaboration between Farm Bureau, Ohio Certified Crop Advisors, Ohio Federation of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Ohio State University Extension and eight other farm organizations to provide farmers with formal Nutrient Management Plans that spell out specific steps to lessen nutrient runoff.

“While we remain unconvinced that the impairment designation was necessary, we will make sure that farmers’ voices are heard throughout the process. More importantly, we’ll continue to work with our farmers to find solutions that are beneficial to both Lake Erie and Ohio’s farm community. We firmly believe that productive farming and clean water are not mutually exclusive,” Sharp said.

In a joint statement, the Ohio Soybean Association and the Ohio Corn and Wheat Growers Association had this to say about the designation:

Ohio’s farmers have been strong partners in protecting Lake Erie. The checkoff programs of Ohio’s corn, soybean and wheat farmers have made significant investments in science-based research to help farmers reduce phosphorous loss. We have aggressively promoted the use of best management practices among all our growers and will continue to support all efforts that protect water quality while enabling us to maintain food production.

In the light of the work we have done, the dollars we have invested, and the progress we have made, we are disappointed with the decision to seek an impairment designation for the open waters of Lake Erie.

Despite the emotional and political appeal of an impairment designation, it will do nothing to trigger additional federal dollars. It could force us to retrace our steps to rediscover what we already know from years of diligent work on this issue and could delay real solutions for the lake. Duplicative and unnecessary regulations will not improve water quality. A recent study by George Mason University revealed agriculture is already the most regulated industry in Ohio.

Fortunately, there is a road map in place that leads to a real solution. The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the United States and Canada was updated in 2012 to address harmful algae blooms. That agreement was the basis of the target set four years later by Ohio, Michigan and Canada of a 40% reduction in total phosphorous entering Lake Erie by 2025. It is an ambitious goal, but it’s one that can be met if we don’t lose our focus.

What is most needed now is a funding plan that will work under the strategy we have today. Farmers already have put in place science-based land management practices that reduce agricultural runoff and would benefit from additional research to further improve and refine those practices. We also need an infusion of real dollars to all stakeholders that discharge to the lake to improve their waste treatment systems where needed, to pay for monitoring, new equipment and to study even better technologies that will enable farms to put conservation practices in place more efficiently and effectively.

Ohio corn, soybean, and wheat farmers have been working to be part of the solution for many years and will continue their work. This new designation will not deter us from doing the right things for the land, soil and water. We respectfully ask the Kasich Administration to focus on efforts that will move us forward, working directly with farmers, and building on what we’ve already accomplished.

Ohio EPA will present information about the draft impaired waters list through a webinar on April 25, 2018, at 2 p.m. The webinar may be viewed at Ohio EPA’s Central Office in conference room A, 50 West Town Street, Suite 700, Columbus, or by joining online at ohioepa.webex.com/mw3200/mywebex/default.do?siteurl=ohioepa.

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