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The OEC Commends Lawmakers’ Actions to Protect Lake Erie

Adam Rissien, February 13, 2015

Calls for Improvements and Further Steps

Today marked another step forward toward reducing the threat from toxic algae that shut down Toledo’s drinking water last summer.

House Bill 61, introduced by Representatives Jim Buchy, (R-Greenville) and Dave Hall (R-Millersburg), would, in part, limit applications of fertilizer and manure on frozen, snow-covered, and saturated ground, as well as when the weather forecast calls for heavy rain.

The House bill is a slimmer cousin to Senate Bill 1 introduced at the beginning of the 2015 session by Senators Randy Gardner (R-Bowling Green) and Bob Peterson (R-Washington Court House), which would similarly limit manure and fertilizer applications.

“We commend Senators Gardner and Peterson, and Representatives Buchy and Hall for taking the lead to protect Lake Erie and making it a top priority for the Ohio Legislature,” states Adam Rissien, Director of Agriculture and Water Policy with the Ohio Environmental Council.

Both SB1 and HB 61 are good signs that lawmakers are ready to get serious about reducing agricultural nutrient pollution, and represents real progress towards preventing toxic algae that has become a perennial threat not only to Lake Erie, but to many of Ohio’s inland shoreline communities and recreational destinations.

Senate Bill 1 contains nearly all of the provisions of HB 490, a  catchall bill that failed to pass out of the Senate last session. House Bill 61 only carries forward the manure and fertilizer protections, and the ban on open lake disposal.

“One huge difference between the two bills is that HB 61 does not include an automatic sunset clause when the protections expire after five years,” explained Rissien. “We want to give special acknowledgment to Representatives Buchy and Hall for recognizing the importance of long term protection for Lake Erie and northwestern Ohio’s streams.”

Both SB 1 and HB 61 have room for improvement. While each would establish stiff penalties for those who intentionally break the law, both define a violation in a way that  allows someone to spread manure on frozen ground repeatedly for 30 days and only receive one penalty.

“If a person intends to ignore the law, this definition encourages an even more egregious violation, states Rissien. “Each time someone breaks the law, it should count as a single violation.”

Additionally, SB 1 and HB 61 would not protect all of Ohio lakes and streams since the provisions do not apply statewide. Both also include a number of exemptions that allow spreading manure and fertilizer under certain circumstances, such as when they are injected or incorporated (tilled) into the soil. Each bill also provides an exemption for applications to growing crops.

“The growing crop exemption is ripe for abuse if there is no further clarification,” explained Rissien. “The provision is understandable; plants need nutrients to grow, but there should be some direction that prevents excess applications. This is especially important for spreading manure. The difference is between spreading it to grow crops or simply applying it because of inadequate storage capacity.”

Even with improvements, HB 61 and SB 1 represent a good, but small step towards preventing agricultural pollution in Lake Erie and Ohio’s other lakes and streams. In the past five years, numerous reports have called for  phosphorus reductions beyond what can be achieved in these two bills alone.

“Many experts believe we need at least a 40% reduction, possibly more given heavier Spring rains from human-caused climate change in addition to other factors such invasive zebra and quagga mussels,” explained Rissien.

In 2012, the Directors of Agriculture and Ohio Environmental Protection Agency issued a report with several recommendations based on feedback from a work group composed of research scientists, agribusiness leaders, and environmentalists.

One key action was to designate western Lake Erie watersheds a Critical Natural Resource Area, and develop a nutrient management plan program for the area that would help farmers apply the right amounts of fertilizer and manure. Another recommendation was to implement a state-wide standardized soil testing program.

“Ohio needs a comprehensive approach to make sure agricultural producers only apply the amount of manure and fertilizer crops actually need to grow. This means soil testing, and following nutrient management plans,” stated Rissien. “We know many agricultural businesses and associations support these practices as long as it is voluntary, but in order to adequately reduce the threats from toxic-algae, we need a stronger approach.”