Thursday, February 5, 2015

Agriculture Groups: Farmers Already Making Efforts To Cut Fertilizer Runoff

Key agriculture groups said Wednesday that steps should be taken to minimize the growth of algae blooms in major Ohio bodies of water, but argued that efforts are already underway to limit fertilizer runoff from farm fields.  The groups also told the Senate Agriculture Committee that sources other than farming play a role in the health of Lake Erie and other waterways.  The witnesses appeared before the panel that is considering legislation (SB 1*) that makes a series of changes in laws regarding fertilizer use and other matters. The bill is a priority for the Senate, and a floor vote is expected on Feb. 18.
Adam Sharp, vice president of public policy for the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, said having clean water and robust farming are not mutually exclusive because farmers have a proven record of adapting their practices to improve the environment.  He said farmers are already voluntarily reducing phosphorous applications in the Lake Erie basin and are studying new on-field practices that can help prevent runoff.  Mr. Sharp said OFBF has also been closely involved - and significantly invested - in a Healthy Water Ohio initiative that will help with research and training to get improved farming practices. He added that clean water can't come at the expense of food production and that farming can't trump the need for clean water.  "We would suggest, too, that while we're looking at ways farmers can make changes to their practices over the long term, we look also at what additional fixes are appropriate to address other sources of phosphorus and to treat drinking water," Mr. Sharp said. "We need action items that can be done now as we continue work on long-term solutions."
Sen. Randy Gardner acknowledged there are a number of other factors besides farming that play a role in the health of Lake Erie and other bodies of water.  As an example, he said Toledo is making strides in improving its wastewater treatment systems to limit sewage overflows into the lake.
Mr. Sharp also told the panel that a measure enacted last year (SB150, 130th General Assembly) will also significantly limit runoff issues from Ohio farms. He added that the impact of that bill has yet to be seen.
Chad Kemp, president of the Ohio Corn & Wheat Growers Association, said the agriculture community is continuing to take steps to improve environmental outcomes.  By using new technologies and conservation practices he has been able boost his crop production while using less fertilizer, he said.  While agreeing that SB150 will have a positive impact, he said agriculture seems to be the "sole focus" of control efforts. He said farmers do prioritize environmental stewardship, but said other factors play a role in algae growth.
Adam Rissien of the Ohio Environmental Council offered support for the proposal, saying the group hopes additional improvements will be made to prevent another "water crisis" like the one that occurred in Toledo last summer.  "SB 1 is a good first step to begin reducing agricultural nutrient pollution, and it signals a willingness to enact much needed protections that could be even better with some improvements," he said. "Regardless, SB1 represents real progress to help reduce the threat from harmful algal blooms and ensure cities like Toledo provide safe drinking water to its residents."  Among other things, OEC is asking the committee to:  Clarify exemptions to manure and fertilizer restrictions, especially for farmers who grow crops;  Specify that violations of manure and fertilizer regulations are measured in single-day increments, not 30-day increments;  Eliminate an emergency exemption for fertilizer applications;  Remove a five-year sunset clause;  and, Acknowledge that all watersheds would benefit from the bill's language.
Sen. Gardner said many of the provisions of SB1 were taken from last session's HB490, and will likely undergo changes.
Dave Spangler of the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association also urged quick action on the bill, telling the panel that many businesses that are tied to the lake were hurt by environmental issues last year.  He said the algae situation has reached "a critical stage," with the lake now in "serious trouble."  Mr. Spangler said the algae blooms have posed problems for charter captains and many others involved in the tourism industry. Further, he said the issue is causing a change in the ecosystem, with more desirable fish being overrun by less desirable species.  He said the primary cause of the problem is phosphorous running off farm fields, calling for the panel to restrict the application of fertilizer of frozen and saturated fields. Mr. Spangler argued that saturated should also be defined to mean over-fertilized.  Sen. Gardner said it is his impression that there is less phosphorous being used than in the past, but agreed that Lake Erie is a key asset for Ohio. "We need to protect Lake Erie, but we also need to promote it," he said.
Len Syrek of the Lake Erie Waterkeepers also added his support, saying tourism is down across the northern Ohio region. He pointed out that the lake is the final destination of much of the phosphorus that runs into streams and lakes.
Ed Albright of the Ohio Municipal League also offered brief testimony, asking the panel to remove language dealing with sewer and septic systems. He said OML has been working with a key House member on the issue since last session, and said the removal would provide additional time to iron out issues.  Sen. Gardner said the request was being considered.
Sen. Cliff Hite, who chairs the panel, set a Feb. 12 deadline for amendments, but said ideas are welcome immediately. A committee vote on a substitute bill incorporating proposed changes is likely on Feb. 17, he said.  Sen. Gardner told Sen. Lou Gentile he was unsure whether any cabinet agencies would testify on the bill, but said "there's some pretty good consensus" with the administration on the issue.  Testimony from the hearing is available on the committee's website.

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