Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The case against HB490

There is a bill moving through the Ohio State House that seeks to transfer the enforcement authority for livestock manure from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to the Ohio Department of Agriculture.  Currently, the ODNR has an agreement with all 88 SWCD offices for our staff to do the initial investigations, determinations, and to work with landowners to correct management problems that have been allowing livestock waste to contaminate surface and/or groundwater.   In this way, the district stands in the gap between landowners and an enforcement agency, working to solve a problem without penalties being imposed.  This is a win/win arrangement; landowners work with local people who know and understand them and the issues causing the problems, and the community at large benefits from improved water quality without tax increases due to the high cost of enforcement and oversight by two different state agencies.

This would effect the district - but more than that, it would effect our friends and neighbors.  Right now, our technician is investigating a complaint of a muddy mess caused by cattle enclosed in a feedlot on a built up road in Guernsey county.  This is a prime example of why the district staff can do SO MUCH better job of this.  Our staff is trained to look for solutions and give advice on correcting this problem.  Its likely that we can help these folks work through the issue, resulting in better animal health, better water quality in the stream on the property, better bottom line for the farm,  and better relations in the neighborhood where this eyesore has been festering.   All without fines, penalties, permits, and at about half the cost per hour for the district staff involved vs a state employee traveling from Columbus.  And in the process, we may gain another co-operator (and his neighbors) who has a positive opinion of the district.  

•         First and foremost – we are unsure what the problem was with the current system in place.  To our knowledge, the agriculture and environmental communities were not complaining of how Ohio’s 88 SWCDs were handling the program or the ODNR.

•         If the lack of effective enforcement is an issue, it lies within the ODNR and could easily be fixed without transferring the ENTIRE program to an organization that does not have the funding capabilities to handle it.

•         If changes were needed to improve the program – it makes more sense to make those necessary changes to the current structure than to create more bureaucracy, confusion and inefficiencies by transferring the program to the ODA.  Instead allow the ODNR to enter into a MOU with ODA that would give ODA the ability to handle the individual who fail to comply….

•         How will these changes INCREASE efficiency or REDUCE expenses to providing governmental services because in essence, it adds another layer of government, the Ohio Department of Agriculture.

•          The transfer of enforcement authority for “livestock manure only” is a disconnection of current enforcement and divides it between two agencies.  Livestock manure enforcement will be treated as a “nutrient” rather that a water quality issue.  The remaining agricultural, urban and silvicultural sediment water quality enforcement is to remain with ODNR.  Splitting the different programs amongst agencies will result in more cost and potentially much confusion. 

•         There is no funding attached to this transfer. However, the bill adds new responsibilities that ODA will now have to carry out and how could this impact SWCD state match down the road or impact the services provided by the ODNR Division of Soil and Water Resources’ that provides support for the SWCDs.  Furthermore, should SWCDs not enter into the MOUs with ODA, this would leave ODA to handle all complaints. 

•         The proposal envisions a future transfer of the ODNR Resource Management Specialists to ODA (the current plan is to sign a Memorandum of Understanding between ODNR and ODA to allow the RMS’s to serve ODA).  The current ODNR pollution abatement program is primarily administered by four Division of Soil and Water Resources staff known as “Resource Management Specialists” with assistance from the rest of the division staff. Only a small portion of their responsibilities is with the livestock manure program segment.  Other major roles are silvicultural and agricultural erosion and sediment, urban sediment and stormwater, conservation works of improvement and drainage.  Timely agronomic and engineering training is provided by RSM staff to SWCD staffs on location, when needed.  Coordination of pollution abatement initiatives with community and county leaders is also an important role they carry out.  Although the proposal envisions the transfer as enabling the same working relationship between RMS staff and SWCD’s to continue through ODA, this could be extremely difficult due to potential conflicts in priorities.  The RMS staff is currently fully obligated with other responsibilities cited earlier and their transfer would result in confusion and inefficiency.

•         The ODNR, ODA and EPA Directors recently spoke during the 4R Certification Launch for the Nutrient Service Providers and focused their comments on water quality being of highest priority and spoke of the importance of having voluntary efforts and programs in place to make vital improvements to the water quality efforts.  SWCDs have worked hard to provide voluntary conservation assistance and to build and maintain trust with local landowners to facilitate natural resource conservation. The language in the proposed legislation appears to place SWCDs in a greater regulatory role. This will place SWCDs in the awkward role of trying to provide voluntary assistance while also enforcing regulations, resulting in greatly decreased trust by landowners place SWCDs in the awkward role of trying to provide voluntary assistance.

•         This bill could impact our efforts of getting conservation on the ground.  In fact, we feel as though this transfer could negatively impact water quality efforts underway due to the lack of efficiency, chaos it could bring, and the potential regulatory role this could Water Quality Reduction.  It also has the potential to cause issues down the road with USDA.   Example:  There is concern that this legislation will have an impact on water quality trading in the Muskingum River Watershed and elsewhere in Ohio (Miami Watershed and the Ohio River Basin Efforts too highlighted recently by the ODNR, OEPA and the American Farmland Trust). SWCDs within the Muskingum River Watershed have formed a joint board to facilitate water quality trading. Water quality trading cannot occur without cooperating landowners installing conservation practices that generate tradable credits. Conservation practices installed because of enforced regulations are not eligible to generate tradable credits.  So this transfer could have a HUGE impact on those efforts.

•         Will this be seen as the first step in the gradual erosion of authority and responsibility for Ohio’s Soil and Water Conservation Program from ODNR to ODA?  Ohio’s current Soil and Water Conservation program is recognized nationally as a leader in program scope and funding.  Its interaction with ODNR divisions responsible for land, water, mineral, and forestry and wildlife resources enables effective and efficient natural resources program delivery at the local level.

•         A Bit of History:  The option of consolidating Ohio’s Soil and Water Conservation program with ODA versus ODNR was considered in 1969-70.  Agricultural, natural resources, environmental, community and educational agencies and organizations saw the advantage of interaction with other ODNR resource management divisions at that time and saw ODA as a permit/regulatory agency for agriculture only.  The resulting ODNR program for Soil and Water Conservation has flourished over the years and served Ohio well.

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