REYNOLDSBURG, Ohio — A regulatory panel on Thursday put off a decision, potentially for months, regarding Gov. John Kasich's request to designate some 40 percent of Ohio’s share of Lake Erie’s western basin as “distressed.”
The designation would have triggered the writing of new rules giving the state greater power to force efforts to reduce algae-fueling nutrient runoffs from farmland where voluntary efforts have fallen short.
But some members of the Ohio Soil and Water Resources Commission worried the designation was being rushed without sufficient input from farmers and without sufficient dollars set aside for them to cover the cost. They then voted 4-2 to refer the matter to a subcommittee.
There was no deadline set, but Chairman Tom Price said the subcommittee process can take six to nine months.
The two votes cast in opposition to the delay came from two members appointed this week by Mr. Kasich.
An attempt by one member to set a special meeting at an earlier date to deal with the issue failed.
Environmental groups, charter boat captains, and Toledo area local governments, in turn, had argued that Lake Erie can't afford to wait any longer and it's time for the agricultural industry to address what the state says is now the biggest contributor to the lake's chronic toxic algal blooms.
The eight distressed watersheds and partial watersheds would have included Platter Creek, Little Flat Rock Creek, Little Auglaize River, Eagle Creek, Auglaize River, Blanchard River, St. Mary’s River, and Ottawa Riverr, all in the Maumee River Basun.
The designations would have been lifted only if the Department of Agriculture determines sustained improvement in terms of phosphorous levels.
Dave Daniels, Mr. Kasich's agricultural director, said he still plans to begin the months-long rule-writing process in anticipation of the distressed designations ultimately being made. Even if the vote had occurred Thursday, it was likely that the first affected crop season would have been 2020.
“I think it's a lost opportunity to make the declaration and really spend the time in the development of the rules, getting everybody to the table,” Craig Butler, Mr. Kasich's director of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, said after the vote.
“There's a real uncertainty now whether those rules will apply to anything if this commission doesn't come back and favorably make that declaration,” he said.
Farmers urged the delay in a final decision, criticizing Mr. Kasich for trying to address the issue through executive order rather than through legislation. The governor was frustrated that he could not get a fellow Republican in the General Assembly to introduce such a bill.
“This is not an easy problem...,” said Michael Poling, a crop and livestock farmer from Delphos. “It took decades for us to get to this situation. It will not be fixed overnight. We are making efforts to sit here and do a better job of controlling what we put on the soil and understanding how this works.
“But please understand that what we're dealing with is a living organism,” he said. “It breathes, lives, and changes daily just like you and I do. What I see as a solution to a problem today may actually be a handicap tomorrow.”
These watersheds and sub-watersheds would cover nearly 7,000 farms and 2 million acres were targeted by the Kasich administration because they have phosphorous levels of more than twice what would be needed for the state to meet its goals.
The administration has argued that these voluntary efforts, including mandatory training by farmers in the handling of chemical fertilizers, will not be enough for the state to meet its commitment with Michigan and Ontario to reduce phosphorous runoff into the lake by 40 percent by 2025.
Under proposed rules, farmers within the watersheds would have to adopt nutrient management plans by farmers with violations coming with penalties that are missing from current law that encourages farmers to become trained in and to apply best practices in fertilizer application.
Kari Gerwin, director of water quality planning for the Toledo Metropolitan Council of Governments, told the commission that Toledo and other local governments have done or are doing their part, making investments in their sewage treatment plants.
She said such huge investments were not made by local governments and their taxpayers voluntarily but because they were compelled to act through regulation and enforcement.
“It's also worth noting that this threat to the city's drinking water supply is largely the result of activities taking place outside of the Toledo water service areas...,” Ms. Gerwin said.
It's the agricultural industry's turn, she said.
“Designating these eight watersheds as distressed is a good start on the long road to address agricultural pollution in Lake Erie,” she said. “But it's far from a silver bullet.”
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