Thursday, January 17, 2013

Administration Cultivating Fertilizer Regulations As Ag Groups Ask Farmers To Reduce Usage

As agriculture groups ask farmers to reduce the amount of fertilizer they use, the Kasich Administration is developing legislation aimed at fighting algae blooms that have been choking several Ohio lakes in recent years.  More than a dozen agricultural groups recently sent a letter to farmers asking them to help clean up the state's waterways - a development that drew praise from environmentalists, who say government intervention might still be necessary.  That's the message in the letter signed by the Ohio Farm Bureau, Ohio Cattlemen's Association, Ohio Corn & Wheat Growers Association, Ohio Soybean Council, Ohio Livestock Coalition and others.
"Government, special interest groups, the media and the public all expect you to help clean up the state's water resources. If farmers don't do this on their own, there will be federal and state laws and regulations that will mandate how you farm," the letter warns.  The groups ask farmers to immediately begin reducing nutrient runoff into waterways, a major contributor to algae blooms in Grand Lake St. Marys, Lake Erie, and the Gulf of Mexico. They also advise producers to document their reductions.  "Farmers must proactively solve this challenge. There's more at risk than higher costs of regulation. Unless farmers make significant reductions in nutrient runoff, they will increasingly take the blame for phosphorus loading and toxic algae," the letter says.
Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Erica Hawkins said Wednesday the administration was in the process of developing legislation to implement recommendations included in last year's report by the Director's Agricultural Nutrients and Water Quality Working Group.  The report recommended a fertilizer applicator licensing program similar to existing regulations for pesticides applicators, which include continuing education requirements. It also called for requiring retailers to collect data on the amount and location of fertilizer being sold and authorizing the Department of Natural Resources to more aggressively pursue "habitual bad actors."  Ms. Hawkins said most of the Ohio Clean Lakes Initiative, which was formed last year to help state agencies share information on the algae problem, was aimed primarily at increasing education and encouraging the adoption of nutrient management plans and soil testing for now.  "We need to do more to collect more information to do more research so we can understand what we need to be doing," she said. "The bulk of the legislative changes you're going to see are better ways for us to understand how fertilizer is being used, when, and where it's being used to get a clearer picture of the status of things right now and see if we're going to need to make other changes down the road."
Sen. Randy Gardner, who is working with administration officials on legislation to help combat algae blooms in Lake Erie, said it was too early to say whether the proposal might call for additional regulations.  "Like most things, if we can attack this challenge in a voluntary way and make a real difference, that I think is almost always the preference, as opposed to government mandates and regulation," he said.  "If I introduce something that isn't able to generate support by the governor and by the legislature, then all we do is talk about an issue," he said. "I want to fundamentally get things done. We need to discuss how much can be done through existing incentives and through voluntary efforts."
Policymakers could take a more local approach by involving soil and water conservation districts in water management plans, Sen. Gardner said.  "Whether that's required filings and required plans that are established through them or through the state, or whether it's voluntary review, that's to be decided," he said. "I think it makes sense to utilize soil and water districts because they are some of our more trusted and respected local agencies that work with farmers and others to help on these issues."  Sen. Gardner said he would like to offer a comprehensive measure that deals with the many factors contributing to algae growth, such as municipal sewer overflows and dredging, which can stir up nutrients in the in the lake bottom.  "My strong preference would be to gain support by all of the governor's cabinet officials responsible for each area of the legislation and then move forward," he said. "We want the agencies involved in helping implement involved in what we're trying to get done."
Meanwhile, the Ohio Environmental Council commended both the agricultural groups' effort to get farmers to voluntarily limit fertilizer application and the Kasich administration's initiatives to fight algae blooms.  Joe Logan, director of agriculture programs for the OEC, said voluntary conservation practices are helping to keep the soil and nutrients on the field and out of waterways.  "But voluntary efforts alone may not be sufficient to accomplish the magnitude of nutrient reductions necessary to prevent toxic algae and to fully restore water quality in western Lake Erie and Ohio's inland lakes and streams," he said in a statement.  "Most farmers are conservation minded. But some, due to economic circumstances or their traditional farming practices, simply have not been willing to take full advantage of these programs. We hope the ag-coalition letter helps motivate those farmers to take the matter of responsible nutrient use more seriously," he said.  Mr. Logan said nutrient pollution and harmful algae problems have grown in recent years, despite on-going voluntary conservation initiatives.  "In order to restore the health of Lake Erie, Grand Lake St. Marys, and Ohio's other inland lakes, all farmers and ranchers should help conserve soil and water resources. Ultimately, though, a regulatory lever may be needed to make that happen," he said. "Our state and nation must resolve the nutrient issue, likely through a combination of voluntary efforts, eligibility requirements for Farm Bill programs, and direct regulatory requirements."

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