Wednesday, February 1st, 2023
Wednesday, February 1st, 2023

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Bill would deal with Ohio’s phosphorous

Columbus — A Senate bill introduced earlier this year (S.B. 150) would give the Ohio DNR and the Ohio Department of Agriculture new regulatory authority over farmers that allow fertilizer to run off their fields.

The bill, introduced by Sens. Cliff Hite (R-Findlay) and Bob Peterson (R-Sabina), is aimed at curbing the spread of toxic algae that has plagued Lake Erie and other inland lakes, such as Grand Lake St. Marys, in recent years.

The bill, which would likely see revisions during this fall’s session, would allow DNR to cite farmers for allowing too much fertilizer to run off their fields.

Neither senator could be reached for comment for this story before press deadlines.

The bill would also establish a certification program that would include training and be required in order to spread fertilizer on fields in Ohio.

Rick Unger, president of the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association, praised the legislation.

“They are doing a lot of work in Columbus,” Unger said. “There are a lot of farmers coming into compliance voluntarily. They are finding that they are saving money by not using fertilizer if they don’t need to put it down. But there are still a lot of old-time farmers that do it the way they always have. … That’s no good for the lake.”

Unger said it’s time to bring all farmers into compliance.

“We need to wake them up and let them know what they are doing is destroying our lake,” Unger said.

The Ohio Farm Bureau has not taken a stance on the legislation yet.

“It’s hard for us to fully take an in-depth review of it until we have a little bit more information on it,” said the Farm Bureau’s Larry Antosch, senior director of program innovation and environmental policy.

Antosch said the Farm Bureau has provided comments to both state agencies. Namely, he said the bureau would like more detail on what would be required for certification and more information about the process that would strip violators of their certification. Members have expressed concern over that process, Antosch said.

The bureau has been pushing its members in the direction of being more responsible for agricultural runoff because it is seen as the biggest contributor to the algae problem, though there are other sources of the problem.

“We have a lot of folks that are doing nutrient management plans that are increasing their awareness of proper nutrient stewardship,” Antosch said. “That effort has been ongoing. We continue to do that.”

The bureau warned members early this year that if the agricultural community didn’t take enough action to bring the problem under control, the political repercussions to force them to take action would materialize.

But Antosch also said it’s going to take time between the time changes are made and when water quality improvements are realized. So, improvements to water quality that may be coming as a result of recent work to curb the problem are hopefully on the horizon.

But in the meantime, “when we have pictures of algal blooms in Lake Erie, the citizens of Ohio would like that taken care of yesterday,” Antosch said. “There is a different expectation and timeline.”

And even if the legislation is passed, there will be a considerable lag, as the way it’s currently written, the programs wouldn’t be fully implemented for three years.

“It’s a great start,” Unger said. “I think the timetable is way too long. You know how long it takes legislation to go through, and this one is obviously going to be met with a lot of opposition. … We’re basically looking at five years down the line.”

While there have been some criticisms leveled at one part of the bill for shielding farmers’ management plans from the public record, Antosch said that provision is in line with the federal farm bill programs administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“It’s nothing over and above what would be considered confidential under farm bill programs,” Antosch said, adding that the measure is needed to protect farmers since it is proprietary information.

At the end of the day, Antosch said that such a change should be part of larger state nutrient reduction plan that also deals with other sources of nutrient pollution, such as urban runoff and combined sewer overflows.

But that’s not to say that the agriculture industry, which is the largest industry in the state, doesn’t bear the largest burden.

“Agriculture understands that there are some things we can do to address this issue,” Antosch said.

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