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Ohio lawmakers approve measure to protect western Lake Erie

Ohio Environmental Council, March 25, 2015

OEC praises General Assembly and Gov. Kasich, calls for next steps

Today the Ohio House of Representatives gave final approval to legislation (Senate Bill 1) that makes great strides in protecting western Lake Erie from toxic algae and the threats it poses to people’s drinking water and the lake’s $12.9 billion dollar tourism industry.  The Ohio Senate is expected to promptly approve the bill and send it to Governor Kasich for his signature.

The bill culminates months of advocacy by numerous stakeholders, including the Ohio Environmental Council, and represents significant give and take among lawmakers over several important provisions, including penalties for those who violate the law’s protections.

The OEC gives special recognition and credit to the effective leadership of Governor John Kasich, Senator Randy Gardner (R-Bowling Green) and Representative Jim Buchy (R-Greenville). Their efforts were greatly assisted by Senator Edna Brown (D-Toledo) and Representatives Mike Sheehy (D-Oregon) and John Patterson (D-Jefferson).

“We want to thank and congratulate legislators and Governor Kasich for crafting a bill that will certainly help reduce pollution from farms and livestock operations, further protecting western Lake Erie from toxins produced by harmful algal blooms,” stated Adam Rissien, Agricultural and Water Policy Director with the Ohio Environmental Council.

Senate Bill 1 will help reduce Lake Erie’s nutrient pollution by limiting fertilizer and manure applications when the ground is frozen, snow-covered, saturated or when the weather forecast predicts heavy rain. The bill expands uses for the Ohio Healthy Lake Erie Fund that will help farmers meet these protections, and it will ensure those protections remain by excluding a five year sunset clause originally proposed.

The bill passed today strikes the right balance between enforceable provisions and providing agricultural producers adequate time to proactively meet the bill’s protections by offering producers the opportunity to apply for an exemption period, which some may need to build new manure storage facilities.

Added to the final, compromise measure is a provision from Governor Kasich’s budget bill that ensures operators and 3rd-party contractors who apply manure from large and major confined animal feeding operations are trained and certified to follow best management practices. This narrows a “manure loophole” that exists in current rules that exempted some manure from management plans these facilities follow by allowing them to sell or transfer it to other locations.

“In 2013, roughly 1.7 million pounds of phosphorus left the Grand Lakes St. Marys watershed through current regulations. We really have no idea how much phosphorus from these industrial livestock facilities was applied in western Lake Erie basin watersheds,” explained Rissien. “That is why we continue to urge the Kasich administration and the legislature to also require some general reporting requirements to enable Ohio agencies to track which watersheds receive the imported manure, while also protecting individual operations’ sensitive and proprietary information.”

Substitute SB 1 also includes provisions protecting Lake Erie from the disposal of dredged material in Lake Erie’s open waters, though it does include an exemption that allows indefinite disposal of material dredged from the Maumee River, Maumee Bay federal navigation channel, and Toledo harbor.

“We praise Gov. Kasich and the General Assembly for proposing a ban on dredging river mouths and harbors and dumping these sediments into Lake Erie, “said Kristy Meyer, OEC Managing Director, Agricultural, Health & Clean Water Programs. “We urge the General Assembly to set an end date of 2030 for dumping nutrient rich sediments from the Maumee River and Bay into Lake Erie. This gives the Toledo Port Authority, Ohio EPA, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers enough time to develop plans to use these sediments in beneficial ways, like restoring wetlands that would cleanse stormwater of pollutants and nutrients, as well as reduce floodwaters.”

While the bill makes strides to reduce the threat of western Lake Erie’s harmful algae, and represents the agricultural industry’s willingness to be part of the solution by accepting new rules, more needs to be done.

“Until we have provisions that prevent over application of nutrients there will be an increased risk of phosphorus flowing into ditches and streams that ultimately feed toxic algae in Lake Erie and so many other Ohio lakes as well,” explained Rissien. “Such provisions should direct agricultural producers develop effective nutrient management plans that ensure manure and fertilizer is applied only at rates crops actually need to grow; this includes creating protocols for annual soil testing to make certain those plans are effective.”

In 2012, the Ohio Dept. of Agriculture and the Ohio EPA issued a report titled, Directors’

Agricultural Nutrients and Water Quality Working Group: Final Report and Recommendations. Members of the working group included research scientists, agribusiness leaders, and environmentalists whose purpose was, “to discuss how agricultural practices may be contributing to the deteriorating conditions in Lake Erie and to develop recommendations on how the State of Ohio can partner with the agricultural community to encourage agricultural production practices that promote nutrient stewardship,” (p. 1). Among the recommendations was a Critical Natural Resource Area designation for western Lake Erie watersheds, which would enable the Ohio Dept. of Natural Resources Director to establish an effective nutrient management plan program to minimize agricultural pollution flowing into western Lake Erie. The report also recommended that Ohio should develop and implement a state-wide standardized soil testing program.

“Moving forward with these next steps should be part of a broader strategy,” Rissien explained. “Ultimately, we need Governor Kasich to continue being a leader by securing a commitment from all western Lake Erie governors and the Ontario Premier that reduces phosphorus by at least 40 percent, with an emphasis on minimizing agricultural sources. This reduction commitment must be accompanied by a clear timetable with a firm deadline, clear milestones, and a monitoring plan to measure progress and help agencies adjust programs, if needed, to ensure deadlines are met.”

Lake Erie is a foundation of health, economic vitality, and recreation for millions of Ohioans.  Unique among the Great Lakes, Lake Erie is the shallowest, warmest and most biologically productive.  The Lake supports one of the largest freshwater commercial fisheries in the world and the largest sport fishery in the Great Lakes, producing more fish for human consumption than the other four Great Lakes combined.

Each year more than seven million people flock to Ohio’s portion of Lake Erie to watch wildlife, fish, hunt, and create family memories. As a result, more than $12.9 billion in travel and tourism revenue is generated each year and $1.7 billion in federal, state, and local taxes, supporting more than 119,000 direct jobs. Travel and tourism is a $40 billion industry in Ohio, nearly a third of that comes from the seven counties along the Lake.

Lake Erie, however, is not only a unique ecosystem that provides habitat for wildlife and recreational opportunities, but it also supports heavy manufacturing, commerce, and farming.

While it does so much for us, it desperately needs our help to ensure that the residents of greater Toledo will never again wake up to “do not drink” the water advisories as they did the weekend of Aug 2, 2014.