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Farmers Fight Kasich's Lake Erie Cleanup Plan

tractor in farm field
Jean Beaufort
Public Domain Pictures

Farmers are firing back at Gov. John Kasich’s executive order to implement tougher regulations on fertilizer and other farm runoff. The administration says these new requirements will help keep nutrients from polluting Lake Erie. But farmers argue this creates mandates for a problem they’re already trying to fix.

The health of Lake Erie is at the center of a debate playing out at the Statehouse. Since 2011, Ohio has spent more than $3 billion, much of that federal money, to keep Lake Erie clean. Researchers say there’s been a slight decline in the amount of nutrients flowing into the watersheds that feed the lake.

However, Gov. John Kasich says they’re still not on target to greatly reduce the amount of phosphorus getting into Lake Erie.

So, he has a plan he says can lead to tough regulations for farmers, such as mandating best practices for using nutrients.

The Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Commission is expected to vote Thursday on Kasich’s recommendation to designate either partial or entire watersheds as distressed. That would trigger the writing of new rules for how farmers store and use fertilizer, which fuels algal blooms. The rules would also make violators eligible for civil penalties.

“Nutrient management plans work and we are seeing positive results. Every farmer should implement and follow one to ensure they are doing their part to improve water quality statewide,” says Jim Zehringer, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Kasich signed an executive order naming eight watersheds in distress. This designation triggers certain regulations for farmers to follow. On top of that, the Ohio Department of Agriculture will write up additional rules.

Kasich ensures that this isn’t meant to be over-regulation, but a way to spell out what needs to be done to help Lake Erie.

“This is just requiring farmers to figure out a way to manage their land in a more environmentally friendly way," Kasich says. "I believe the farmers want to do that. Sometimes some of them don’t know exactly what that means so to put a plan in place where we can help fund them on whatever it takes to do that makes a lot of sense."

But Ohio’s agriculture industry opposes this move, seeing it as government overreach. Duane Stateler is a hog farmer in Hancock County. He says these eight watersheds involve two million acres of farmland.

“This is going to take an overwhelming amount of manpower that no one has even ever thought about as far as the implementation of any rules or regulation that is handed down," Stateler says. "We’re talking 6,500 to 7,000 farmers maybe."

Mark Drewes , a grain producer in Wood County, says farmers are already doing what they can to mitigate the problem of nutrient runoff.

“What our farm is doing today will probably be outdated in the near future and I hope it is because with science and anything that is science based we are finding better ways to keep the nutrients out of the lake,” says Drewes.

He adds that this is a long-term problem that needs long-term solutions.

“The lake did not become this way overnight," Drewes says. "I look back at my youth, the way we did things, it took generations for it to get to the point it is and it’s going to take some time to repair it.”

In the past five years, the General Assembly has passed several pieces of legislation that address the issue of farmland runoff. The Ohio Farm Bureau Federation says they supported those bills and were included in the process. But for this executive order, the farm bureau says the Kasich administration didn’t seek their input.

Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler has been telling the Legislature that the state needs to enact regulations. He adds that the mandates in the current proposal can evolve.

“What’s next? What we can do better? Where we can target our resources and perhaps what we can even stop doing," Butler says. "We must act now because there are reasonable actions to protect these critical natural resources in Lake Erie."

In May, Kasich threatened to take this kind of unilateral action on the issue, saying the western basin of the lake, where toxic algae blooms have developed, is impaired. But Republican House Speaker Ryan Smith and other members of the legislature say they’re opposed to the executive order because they feel this should be addressed by the House and Senate.

Andy Chow is a general assignment state government reporter who focuses on environmental, energy, agriculture, and education-related issues. He started his journalism career as an associate producer with ABC 6/FOX 28 in Columbus before becoming a producer with WBNS 10TV.