Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Stressing Collaboration And Education, Healthy Water Ohio Coalition Releases State-Wide Strategic Plan

A $100 million a year bond ballot issue and a $250 million annually funded trust fund are two key aspects of a strategic plan unveiled by Healthy Water Ohio.  During a conference call with reporters, members of the group's steering committee released the 36-page water management plan two years in the making.  Launched in 2013, the wide-ranging coalition was convened to develop a long-term water management strategy to shore up Ohio's aquatic tourism, strengthen the agricultural industry, and address other state-wide water-related concerns.  "This report will be a roadmap for assuring that our water and food production resources are preserved and strengthened," said Steve Hirsch of Ohio Farm Bureau Federation.  In crafting the plan, the group fielded input from more than 200 people.
The plan is broken down into five key subject areas including research, policy and jurisdiction, infrastructure, funding, and education and awareness. Some of the measure the coalition will push for moving forward include:

  • Establishing a formal research group and improving the coordination between water-related researchers
  • Leveraging existing watershed districts to facilitate collaboration, providing indemnity for farmers and industries that voluntarily participate in research, and improving coordination among state agencies
  • Conducting a needs assessment of water-related infrastructure
  • Establishing the Ohio Water Trust and launching a state bond initiative to protect water resources
  • Boosting efforts to educate government officials, Ohio students and the general public

Josh Knights, executive director of the Nature Conservancy in Ohio, said the group tried not to limit its brainstorming by cost constraints.  "We really wanted to start with the substance before we moved on to how were we going to accomplish that and how to pay for it," he said.  The proposed Ohio Water Trust would be overseen by a board of stakeholders which would vet projects to improve water quality, reduce stormwater and other flooding, and accomplish other water-related goals.  Funding for the trust isn't yet finalized, but the group said support from water quality trades, agriculture and business sectors, government bond sales, water user fees, portions of boating and fishing license fees, and philanthropic contributions are all potential funding sources.  The proposed bond issue should generate $100 million annually to fund water-related projects, according to the group. Those funds would then be administered by the trust.  The proposed bond program appears similar to the existing Clean Ohio Fund, a $400 million conservation program renewed by voters in 2008. Mr. Knights said the group's proposed bond issue could be modeled after that existing program, but that it would be a more targeted approach.  "(With) the Clean Ohio Fund the purposes are multiple and they're not specifically addressed to water quality issues," he said. "So we feel that to really tackle the issue and make an impact we'd need to have something ... that would be specifically targeted to the water quality issue."

The plan's rollout comes two days after Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni introduced his own proposed bond issue. That measure (SJR 3) would create a ballot issue authorization annual general obligation bonds of up to $100 million a year for water infrastructure improvements or maintenance.

Mr. Knights said the group has yet to examine the joint resolution in detail, but called it "a very positive development."  "We're aware of it and we welcome it," he said. "I think it's exciting the General Assembly is starting to think along those lines and we'd very much like to have the opportunity to sit down and learn a little bit more about their envisioning and how what we're rec with health waters Ohio might overlap with that."  The group is looking to create the water trust by 2016 as phase one of its efforts. Phase two will take place between 2017-2020, during which the group will implement priority initiatives. Phase three, beginning in 2021, will include continued improvement of existing processes and measurement of the plan's return on investment.

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