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Comments of the Ohio Environmental Council and Alliance for the Great Lakes on the draft Ohio Domestic Action Plan 2023

Emily Kelly, Water Fellow, November 20, 2023

On behalf of the Alliance for the Great Lakes (AGL) and Ohio Environmental Council (OEC),
and our thousands of members and supporters throughout the state of Ohio and the Great
Lakes Region, we respectfully submit these comments on the draft Ohio Domestic Action Plan
2023 (draft DAP). We appreciate the opportunities to meet with the agencies and provide input
into the development of the H2Ohio plan and Maumee Watershed Nutrient Total Maximum Daily
Load (TMDL) that has informed the draft DAP. We applaud this significant investment in Lake
Erie targeted towards mitigating the major causes of harmful algal blooms (HABs).

Unfortunately, HABs, largely caused by excessive nutrient runoff, continue to threaten the lake
and pose risks to drinking water supplies, quality of life, and economic vitality. In June 2023, the
Ohio EPA released the Maumee River TMDL. The TMDL outlined the waste load allocations for
point sources to decrease the phosphorus load from the Maumee watershed. Nonpoint source
pollution failed to be adequately addressed in the TMDL and is necessary to reach a 40%
nutrient reduction in the Western Lake Erie Basin (WLEB), outlined by the Great Lakes Water
Quality Agreement’s Annex 4. These actions coupled with the TMDL and H2Ohio investment
will build a strong strategy for preventing HABs in western Lake Erie. Application of every tool
available is necessary to solve this problem. We respectfully provide the following
recommendations for inclusion into the final Ohio DAP to be submitted to the U.S. EPA.

Comment #1: Address critical gaps in relevant information for agricultural operations

Dissolved Reactive Phosphorus (DRP) Monitoring

Dissolved Reactive Phosphorus (DRP) driven phosphorus contribution from nonpoint
agricultural sources is the main cause of water quality impairment and HABs in Lake Erie. We
would like to commend the Lake Erie Commission staff for utilizing the program to collect new
data from the H2Ohio Lake Erie and Aquatic Research Network (LEARN) program that is
comprised of field stations, scientific laboratories and diverse researchers working together to
promote collaborative research, education and networking to address the challenges and
opportunities facing Ohio’s aquatic ecosystems.

The draft DAP states on page 7 that “The ODNR is funding a research program through its
portion of H2Ohio called LEARN that is intensively studying the dynamics of phosphorus in
created and stored wetlands to better understand how to reduce the loss of phosphorus as
water is held back in these important components of Ohio’s waterways. We expect to use the
results of these studies to further inform the allocation of resources through the H2Ohio
program.” We appreciate the use of timely data to evaluate and inform the H2Ohio programs.

Yet, we also note that there has been no measured decrease in flow-weighted mean
concentration (FWMC) of DRP with current programs like H2Ohio and the TMDL. The state
should develop a metric for DRP to evaluate current programs, practices and investment.
Current research demonstrates methods of measuring DRP to track changes in water quality.
For instance; Soil Test Phosphorus (STP) does not exceed 50 ppm Bray P1, even median DRP
concentrations in drain tiles generally meet Annex 4 guidelines (0.05 mg/l, the target
flow-weighted mean concentration for DRP for the Maumee River)1. As STP levels increase
above 50 ppm, DRP concentrations in tiles increase. The target FWMC for DRP was 0.05 mg/l
and for TP it was 0.23 mg/l. The US and Canadian Governments officially agreed to the report
and the targets in February 2016 and we must measure DRP to understand how DAP practices
are progressing.


  • We recommended that progress be measured by monitoring the flow-weighted mean concentration (FWMC) of both DRP and TP in runoff from tiled agricultural fields by using data from USGS monitoring stations and Heidelberg monitoring in the watershed and sub watersheds and/or using current STP and DRP monitoring devices on the market.

We applaud the LEC staff for making efforts toward locating tile systems in farm fields, as we understand that this is a challenging task. After the state completes mapping of tiled fields we recommend the LEC request monitoring devices that are available to measure DRP at the end of tile outlets. Although some of these instruments are not available yet there are many with the right technology and affordability that could be staged in upstream tributary waterways.

Research shows that edge-of-tile pipe monitoring can measure the DRP of liquid waste from the tile flow, especially in no-till fields. Findings show large increases in loads and concentrations of DRP from tile outlets during high-flow events. This reflects the events (snowmelt or storms) that flush the DRP from manure applications out through the tiles. Ohio should allocate funding for this kind of monitoring and commit to utilizing the results to shape policy going forward.2

Liquid Manure Application on Tiled Agricultural Fields

Liquid Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) waste––including dissolved nutrients
and contaminants like DRP––applied to tile-drained fields behaves like water; some portion of it
immediately begins to flow down through the preferential flow paths (cracks, holes, etc.) in the
soil into the subsurface drainage system, and ultimately into surface waters.3 Direct connections
between the soil surface and tile drains, such as tile risers, increase phosphorus runoff.
Eliminating these connections by converting tile risers to blind inlets, in-field conservation practice that replaces a surface inlet or drains water from depressional areas on a field can
reduce P loss by 60% at the field level.4


  • CAFOs that apply liquid waste to tile-drained fields are point sources discharging to waters of the state and those discharges are not subject to the agricultural stormwater runoff exemption. The DAP should address the need for the state to require CAFO operators to complete National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits.
  • The DAP must design a strategy for implementation that moves H2Ohio and the TMDL toward reducing subsurface drainage losses. We recommend considering the importance of preferential flow of liquid waste/dissolved contaminants into the tiles considered by previously mentioned studies and Julie Weatherington-Rice, PhD: “The only reasonable solution is to change how we handle all that liquid manure. We can put the animals out on pasture like they do in Canada. A 640-acre farm should be able to pasture about 500 cows. Or we can treat the manure through a packaged wastewater treatment plant, converting the phosphorus into a much less soluble form or we can construct large composting operations. That is what the City of Columbus does with the biosolids from the Jackson Pike and Southerly wastewater treatment plants.”5

Comment #2: Monitoring efforts and framework for tracking process

Monitoring and other efforts to improve cross-jurisdictional understanding of the problem must
inform local actions. The TMDL binational targets identify phosphorus loading amounts for the
mouths of the major tributaries flowing into Lake Erie. Monitoring and tracking phosphorus loads
across the Maumee River Basin will be the ultimate gauge of how successful reduction efforts
are. A more granular framework for tracking progress is also needed.


  • TMDL target amounts should be sub-allocated to the smaller watersheds within each of those tributary systems. A sub-allocation of the targets would provide a nested approach so that loading from upstream watersheds aggregate to meet the downstream target. This framework would make it simpler to identify, quantify, and prioritize nutrient sources in smaller areas. In addition, a sub-allocation would allow for tracking progress at a smaller scale, leading to swifter, more focused intervention when needed.
  • There should be a greater emphasis on the sub-watersheds where the loads are greatest. Former Governor Kasich’s failed executive order focusing greater emphasis on the tributaries on the south side of the Maumee by designating them as “watersheds in distress” should be resurrected. The excellent science in that plan showed that no sub-watershed was hitting the Task Team targets, but the sub-watersheds on the south side of the Maumee had FWMC of DRP that were each 2-3 times the target concentrations. Those watersheds should get greater attention.

Comment #3: Strategies and implementation actions


While we appreciate the draft DAP’s recognition of the need for the implementation of multiple
best management practices (BMPs) to reach phosphorus reduction targets, as we noted in our
prior OH 2020 DAP comments, implementation of those BMPs is still optional. The draft DAP
notes that participation of 70% or more of cropland in the WLEB in Voluntary Nutrient
Management Plans (VNMP) is necessary, but we are currently only halfway there. Voluntary
measures alone will not be enough to get to the finish line.

H2Ohio and other funding initiatives are critical to shifting agricultural systems toward improving
soil health and water quality. While the draft DAP recognizes it will take time to see improved
adoption and increased implementation of BMPs and conservation practices, it neglects to
acknowledge the increased investment that will be necessary to accomplish water quality
objectives.6 As we noted in our 2020 DAP comments, it is also not possible to sustain current
investment levels in perpetuity across all conservation practices. The agriculture industry must
start to internalize costs so that the state can shift fiscal attention to long term funding for
structural practices.


  • We reiterate our 2020 ask for specific enforceable guidance on the use of BMPs for agricultural producers who are not currently seeking H2Ohio funding. This is a key step that will ensure that recipients of H2Ohio dollars are accountable for actions that lead to improved water quality.
  • We look forward to and encourage the use of BMP mapping and the tile drain network map as a first step in targeting higher risk fields for prioritization. We encourage the agencies to further include in the DAP detailed descriptions of how nonpoint BMP implementation will be assessed, tracked, and evaluated based on that mapping.
  • H2Ohio funding should continue to be used to support ongoing state investment instructural practices (i.e.“hard practices”) that require significant resources to design and engineer and that can take land out of production (i.e. field-based treatment systems, wetlands, erosion control).
  • Meanwhile, funding for “soft” annual practices should be clearly term-limited and used only to support farmers and agribusiness in learning to adapt and internalize the cost of annual “soft” practices (i.e. nutrient management, cover crop, managed grazing, perennial forage, no-till).


The TMDL set for the Maumee River watershed did not go far enough to address the farm fields with the most phosphorus output. It does not set quantifiable goals and targets for the installation of conservation practices and the TMDL Implementation Plan and Reasonable Assurances rely on the DAP and H2Ohio to achieve the nonpoint Load Allocation.


  • We recommend the coordinated use of regional watershed planning to better inform the TMDL and target where BMPs (and VNMPs) are needed most.
  • We encourage the agencies to develop a comprehensive monitoring structure to accurately identify and track farm locations and sizes, animal units, ownership, conservation practice implementation, acreage, soil test phosphorus levels, the extent of tile lines, and current tillage practices.

Comment #4: LEC’s ability to demand accountability

Actions to address nutrient loss from agriculture

Like the Implementation Plan, the Reasonable Assurances portion of the TMDL is largely a
summary of ongoing programs and efforts in the Basin to reduce phosphorus loading. When the
state of Ohio pushed back against developing a TMDL it cited a similar list of activities as
rationale for not needing a TMDL. The mere existence of these programs and efforts does not
ensure that water quality goals will be met. The TMDL lacks a robust implementation strategy to
go beyond the status quo of optional and incentive-based programs that have yet to
demonstrate phosphorus load reductions at a scale that can impact instream water quality.
With respect to current agricultural regulatory programs, the draft DAP notes, “changes to these
regulatory programs would require legislative action.” While we recognize that legislative
changes may be necessary to accomplish certain objectives, there are other actions that are
possible within the agencies’ current authority. Revisions to the existing agricultural regulatory
programs are needed to ensure accountability for the taxpayers’ investments in H2Ohio.
The agencies have a myriad of tools available to increase and ensure greater accountability,
including the ability to:

  • Prioritize how H2Ohio funding is spent;
  • Attach terms and conditions to the receipt of that funding;
  • Strengthen administrative requirements on the agricultural industry for both permitted and unpermitted animal feeding operations, such as record keeping, monitoring, and
  • reporting via the agencies’ administrative rulemaking authority;
  • Increase and allocate resources to enforcing existing permit requirements; and
  • Advocate to the legislature for regulatory changes when necessary.


We encourage the agencies to do all of the following:

  • Attach terms and conditions to grants awarded under H2Ohio requiring the implementation of VNMPs that include multiple BMPs;
    • Revise existing permitting requirements to better track land application of manure and nutrients, including record keeping, monitoring, and reporting;
    • Increase and allocate resources to enforcing existing permit requirements, specifically those associated with land application of manure and nutrients;
  • As we recommended in 2020, the state should develop an administrative rule or statute allowing Agricultural Performance Standards to be adopted and/or adjusted within the TMDL if significant progress is not shown by 2025. This would create a meaningful bulkhead against continuing impairment, and performance backsliding while preserving the integrity of large-scale taxpayer investments.
  • As we also recommended in 2020, over the next two years the agencies and farmers should be working toward defined levels of performance measured by both implementation of H2Ohio and water quality metrics that are integrated with the TMDL.

Ohio can vastly improve this performance certainty and assurance to taxpayers by
embracing a hybrid accountability approach to voluntary and triggered compulsory
elements that also considers the short-term uncertainty faced by farmers. There are
ostensibly three phases to this work over this decade:

  1. Aggressive implementation in the run up to the 2025 target;
  2. Adaptations based on whether that target will be met; and
  3. Water quality assurance maintenance to ensure a bulkhead against backsliding
    once progress shows a trend toward success or targets are achieved.

The last two phases must be addressed in advance of the target dates and require agency and
cross-sector collaboration to define what assurance controls are needed to achieve water
quality performance.

We hope that our comments and those submitted by other parties similarly committed to
ensuring the protection of our nation’s greatest freshwater resource, the Great Lakes, will be
used to strengthen the draft DAP, its data collection efforts and its implementation strategy to
put it in the best position possible to shift the tide of phosphorus pollution contributions to the
WLEB from the Maumee River Watershed.

Emily Kelly, MS
Agriculture and Water Coordinator
Ohio Environmental Council

Helena Volzer, J.D.
Senior Agriculture Policy Manager
Alliance for the Great Lakes

1 U.S. EPA. (31 August 2016). Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement Nutrient Annex 4 Objectives and Targets Development Task Team Multi-Modeling Report. Battelle.

2 Babak Dialameh and Ehsan Ghane. (2023). Investigation of phosphorus transport dynamics using high-frequency monitoring at a subsurface-drained field in the Western Lake Erie Basin. Journal of Great Lakes Research. Volume 49, Issue 4. Available at:

3 Harold M. Keener, James J. Hoorman, Michael H. Klingman. (12 July 2006). Rheology and Flowability Properties of Liquid Dairy and Swine Waste. American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers.

4 Michigan State University. Biosystems & Agricultural Engineering – Drainage. Accessed at:

5 Attached Opinion Letter of Julie Weatherington-Rice.

6 Alliance for the Great Lakes and Ohio Environmental Council. (Feb. 2023). The Cost to Meet Water Quality Goals in the Western Basin of Lake Erie. Available at: