John Kasich rattled the Statehouse two months ago when he issued an executive order designed to curb farm runoff fueling harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie. The governor needled state lawmakers for “dithering” when they responded to the order by forming a committee to study the matter. Now the state Department of Agriculture has completed a second round of comment on proposed rules. Are resistant farmers, lawmakers and other parties beginning to get their way?
The governor’s order recognizes the leading role of farms in sending phosphorous-laden runoff into Lake Erie. The order establishes new requirements for farmers in eight watersheds deemed distressed. One requirement initially called for farmers to put together nutrient management plans and submit the plans to the Agriculture Department for the director’s approval.
The latest version of the order makes things easier for farmers. They no longer would be required to file plans for approval. They would submit a statement saying the plan was completed. The director could obtain a copy of the plan upon request.
It is understandable the department would make adjustments following input from various stakeholders. One reasonable change gives farmers time to comply before enforcement measures take effect. The concern about erasing the requirement to file plans with the department goes to weakening oversight and enforcement.
The change echoes the thinking that voluntary measures somehow are enough to accomplish the task, in this case, fulfilling the state’s commitment to reduce phosphorous-laden runoff 40 percent, the level advised by scientists.
That is a challenging task. At the same time, this is Lake Erie, arguably the state’s most valuable resource, a natural treasure and economic engine, its tourism businesses annually generating more than $15 billion in economic activity.
The governor’s order points in the worthy direction of setting a Total Daily Maximum Load of runoff going into the lake. The past several years have seen voluntary steps achieve little. Advocates for stronger regulatory action rightly cite experience, real environmental advances involving air and water coming through mandatory steps combined with effective enforcement.
That may be a chilling thought to many farmers and lawmakers. What farmers should expect, and lawmakers should provide, is financial support to ensure compliance. Perhaps there are alternative steps, say, a phosphorous tax, or a market-based trading system that provides incentives to reduce runoff.
Farmers are not the sole contributors to the problem. Such things as lawn fertilizer, sewer overflows and septic tanks make a contribution. So, the approach must be comprehensive, something lawmakers already grasp as demonstrated through the limited steps they have taken.
Larry Obhof, the Senate president, recently told the Gongwer News Service: “We all want the lake to be clean. We all want to make sure we protect and preserve our greatest asset. We going to try to work together over the next few months and see what we can do.” Those are noble sentiments. What Ohio now has is the governor finally prodding lawmakers with an executive order.
And they are looking to weaken it?