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All Aboard! Collaboration key to Ohio's water quality efforts

Article cover photo
Terry McClure a Grover Hill, Ohio farmer has implemented conservation methods to slow nutrients leaving his fields. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)

By Matt Wilde, ISA Sr. Writer

After the Toledo water crisis, it was as if general quarters sounded across Ohio.

On a U.S. Navy ship, it’s a call for sailors to man their battle stations. State leaders, farmers, environmentalists and tourism officials say Lake Erie’s phosphorus-driven algal blooms threatening public health was their signal to action.

 Toledo’s scare motivated citizens to work together and take bold actions to mitigate water pollution.

 “It became all-hands-on-deck to find a solution,” says State Sen. Bob Peterson, who also farms near Sabina, Ohio. “One thing that happened, and it doesn’t always, is people didn’t initially point fingers.”

The high-ranking rule maker says stakeholders with a vested interest in improving water quality and preserving the state’s $105 billion agriculture industry didn’t always agree, but teamwork largely prevailed. 

The result: A combination of voluntary and regulatory measures to reduce nutrient loads entering waterways and a plan outlining goals, initiatives and a timeline to do so.

“We attacked the problem as a team,” says Peterson, president pro tempore of the Senate. “We looked for collective solutions, which is pretty unique.”

The Collaborative

 The leaders of Ohio, Michigan and the Canadian Province of Ontario agreed to reduce phosphorus loadings in Lake Erie by 40 percent in June of 2015, 11 months after Toledo’s water crisis. Talks to do so were ongoing prior to that.

Karl Gebhardt, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) director for water resources, says an action plan wasn’t scheduled to be ready until 2018.

“The governor said that’s not soon enough. We have big issues here,” Gebhardt recalls.

Meetings and conversations with various stakeholder groups, including Ohio’s soy organizations, and state agencies kicked into high gear to develop Ohio’s roadmap to achieve the goal. The Western Lake Erie Basin Collaborative Implementation Framework — known as the Collaborative — was approved in February. 

The plan calls for a 40 percent load reduction of total and dissolved reactive phosphorus entering Lake Erie’s western basin by 2025 with an aspirational goal of a 20 percent reduction by 2020. Nutrient loading data from 2008 serves as the baseline from which progress is measured. 

The ultimate goal is to limit the number of “significant” algae blooms to one every 10 years. This allows for an occasional very wet year that spurs algae growth, according to the Collaborative.

State officials and farmers say it’s an aggressive goal. Weather and legacy phosphorus will always be a challenge, experts contend, especially with rain events increasing in intensity.

“There are milestones set and we think they are achievable, but there will be a cost,” says Kirk Hines, Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) Division of Soil and Water Conservation chief.

“We can’t control the weather, which is a driving force behind the algal blooms,” John Schlichter, ODA deputy director, adds. “But we can implement practices to make things as stable as possible.”

Gebhardt says almost $3 billion in state and federal funds have been spent since 2011 to improve water quality statewide. It includes grants, cost-share and loans to update wastewater treatment and water plants, fix or replace leaky septic systems, reduce urban storm water runoff and help farmers implement conservation practices and build manure storage structures. An estimate on funding still needed to meet the phosphorus goal isn’t available.

The Collaborative is based on the following principles:

  • Implementation of point and nonpoint nutrient reduction practices.
  • Verification of targeted practice implementation and effectiveness.
  • Documentation of water quality changes.
  • Adaptability to allow for modification of programs, practices and policy.
  • Accountability to ensure clear areas of responsibilities and the commitment to achieve goals.

“The state’s approach is not pointing fingers at any one source but all sources,” Gebhardt says.

Ohio EPA focuses on reducing phosphorus loads from point sources. The Ohio Department of Health is responsible for curtailing home septic system leaks and beach monitoring. ODA oversees the nonpoint side.

Twenty-six priority watersheds were identified in the Collaborative to curb nonpoint source pollution, Gebhardt says.

“It’s like fire prevention,” he continues. “You talk about ways to prevent fires and spend money to educate people; but if there’s a fire, that’s where the majority of resources are sent.”

Increasing the pace and scale of implementing conservation practices such as cover crops, drainage water management structures, grass waterways and wetlands, among others, are part of the plan. Soil testing every three years to ensure nutrients are applied at agronomic levels is integral.

Water monitoring stations located on the Maumee River and other waterways is crucial to success, officials say.

Hines estimates annual phosphorus loadings to waterways average about
1 to 1 ½ pounds per acre. The state’s goal can be met by reducing loadings by a half-pound, he contends.

Studies have shown that taking historically unprofitable acres out of production and putting them in conservation practices like wetlands could help meet the goal, Schlichter contends. Other experts say holding back more water on the land by increasing organic matter and/or adding water management control structures will do it.

ODA officials say voluntary conservation measures are on the rise. They include conservation tillage and cover crops that capture nutrients and improve organic matter. The number of drainage management structures have skyrocketed from a half-dozen to more than 1,000 since 2010.

“Farmers are great stewards of the land and we have great producers in Ohio,” Hines says. 

Legislative action

The Ohio Legislature passed a pair of mandates to prevent nutrient runoff.

Senate Bill 150 requires anyone who applies fertilizer to more than 50 acres for agriculture production to undergo education and certification by ODA. The law, passed just prior to the Toledo water crisis, went into effect in October of 2014.

The idea is to inform applicators about the state’s water quality issues, provide the latest information about application methods, agronomic rates and research concerning nutrient runoff.

“It’s simply to explain to folks what they can do to help improve water quality and their bottom line,” Schlichter says.

Initially, some farmers were apprehensive. Schlichter recalls attending the first certification class and overhearing a farmer say he’ll just return home and continue doing the same thing.

“I called him out and said I hope you don’t do that. We can’t afford it,” he says. “Agriculture is in the crosshairs. A lot of people think it’s completely ag’s fault.”

About 16,500 farmers were certified by the end of May, according to ODA statistics. The deadline to take the 3-hour course is the end of September. Failure to do so could result in fines and/or being charged with a misdemeanor offense.

“The vast majority of attendees say they hear something that’s helpful,” Schlichter says.

Certification is required every three years. The cost is $30, though a person is not required to pay if they already have a valid commercial or private pesticide license.

Farmer Anthony Stateler of McComb, Ohio, took the class this spring.

“I don’t know of anyone who was truly against it,” he says. “I learned quite bit.”

Besides the education component, the law encourages producers to adopt nutrient management plans, allows ODA to better track fertilizer sales and distribution and provide Ohio’s Department of Nature Resources the authority to repurpose funds for additional best management practice installation.

A voluntary Ohio Agricultural Stewardship Verification program started in May. ODA officials expect the pilot project, currently in two counties, to spread statewide soon. It certifies that farmers are protecting farmland and natural resources by implementing best management practices.

“I think farmers are willing and making great strides,” Schlichter says.

In April of 2015, the Legislature passed a law that prohibits the spreading of manure and commercial fertilizers with phosphorus and nitrogen on frozen, snow-covered or saturated ground in the Western Lake Erie Basin. It also bans manure application if the forecast calls for a 50 percent chance of a half-inch of precipitation over 24 hours. Commercial fertilizer can’t be applied if an inch of rain is forecast over 12 hours.

“As for the manure rule, we pretty much already did it,” Stateler says. “It wasn’t unreasonable.”

A new online tool called the Ohio Applicator Forecast is available to assist farmers and commercial applicators. It’s designed to help identify times when the potential for nutrient loss is low. ODA partnered with the National Weather Service to develop the app.

Terry McClure, Ohio Soybean Council chairman, says no farmer likes regulations but the certification and application laws are “reasonable.” He grows 4,000 acres of soybeans, corn and wheat and markets 18,000 pigs a year near Grover Hill, Ohio.

Farmers and ag groups were willing to consider and accept science-based regulations to improve water quality, McClure says. If not onerous, unacceptable statutes were likely such as one-size-fits-all fertilizer and conservation mandates.

“We codified good practices for the 1 percent of people who weren’t doing it right,” McClure says. “It showed society we’ll do our part. It has paid us back in spades by being proactive.”

Not all farmers like the approach. Charles Wildman, a grain and pig farmer from South Charleston, Ohio, thinks the state prematurely passed regulations.

“I’m skeptical of the moves made to improve water quality before all the research and data was collected to learn how best to solve the problem,” Wildman says. “I’m in favor of farmers reducing nutrient movement and erosion (voluntarily).”

So far Ohio EPA has refused to declare the Western Lake Erie Basin impaired, despite calls from environmental groups and two lawsuits to do so. That would likely trigger more regulations on point and nonpoint sources.

“We think what we have in place is working, but it won’t be a quick fix. It will take years,” Hines says.

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