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NEWS Ohio’s Country Journal Water Quality Working Group releases recommendations

BY MATT REESE The Directors’ Agricultural

Nutrients and Water Quality Working Group spent months compiling their extensive findings on how agriculture is contributing to water quality prob- lems and how this can be controlled. The group was assembled to aggregate all of the available information on the problem, organize it and present it to the directors of the Ohio Department of Agriculture, the Department of Natural Resources and the Environmental Protection Agency, who then made rec- ommendations to the governor. “This Phosphorus Task Force started

back in August. The Governor wanted a panel on this issue and there were 125 different groups represented,” said Karl Gebhardt, chief of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Soil and Water Resources at the Conservation Tillage and Technology Conference (CTTC) in Ada last month. “The goals of the working group were to identify research gaps, as we do have some gaps out there. We’re going to be building the car as we go down the road with this because we don’t have 10 or 15 years to work on researching this problem.” The task force also sought to identi-

fy the land use and nutrient manage- ment practices that could solve the problem and develop incentives and/or regulations to facilitate the implementation of those practices. “We don’t want to penalize the

farmers who are already doing the right things,” Gebhardt said. “Communication with farmers is important. We need to make sure farmers know the right things to do. We also want to make sure ag contin- ues to be a viable industry. We don’t want to add regulations and costs for those who are already doing the right things.” Last month, the three Departments

announced their recommendations for reducing excess agricultural nutrients from affecting or entering the Western Basin of Lake Erie. “Our agencies worked with Ohio’s

agricultural community to identify the best ways to decrease this nutrient loading into Ohio’s water bodies,” said David Daniels, director of the ODA. “The farmers, private companies, agricultural organizations, agri-busi- nesses, environmental organizations and academic institutions were all asked to provide their best input, ideas, advice and guidance. That was the foundation for developing these initial recommendations.” The report establishes the following

key recommendations for action by ODNR, ODA and OEPA: Promote the voluntary “4R Nutrient

Stewardship,” which encourages farm- ers to use the right fertilizer source, at the right rate, at the right time and with the right placement; Utilize a three-tiered, statewide

structure for prioritizing the implemen- tation of any recommendations, based upon the condition of any given water- shed in Ohio; Coordinate research and align fund-

ing streams; Coordinate programmatic funding

within OEPA and ODNR; Coordinate communication and out-

reach effort to farmers; Develop a voluntary, statewide

“Certified Nutrient Stewardship Program” for farmers (ODNR); Provide ODA authority to better

train Ohio farmers about applying commercial fertilizer; Expand the regulatory authority of

ODA to collect more specific geograph- ical data on where fertilizer sales are currently made; Clarify the authority of ODNR to

aggressively pursue habitual bad actors; and Expand ODNR’s authority to devel-

opment Nutrient Management Plans. “There is no question that there are

a variety of factors that are contribut- ing to the increased frequency of harm- ful algal blooms in Lake Erie, and many of Ohio’s other streams and water resources,” said Scott Nally, director of the Ohio EPA. “Ohio’s agri- cultural community is not being sin- gled out. With that being said, fertilizer is a contributing source to the problem and that’s why we felt the need to direct the ag communities’ attention to

this problem and then take action.” In addition to continuing to stress

the use of the 4R nutrient management methodology, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Soil and Water Resources will be tasked with coordinating an extensive education and outreach effort, as well as developing a roadmap for implement- ing the other policy recommendations going forward. “We have two goals: reduce the

occurrence of harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie and make sure we protect the region’s productive agricultural base,” said James Zehringer, director of ODNR. “It’s a complex and challenging problem, and a lot more research needs to be done to fully understand the issue; but these are strong, first steps to move us closer to a healthy Lake Erie.” Legislators, environmental groups

and consumers from around the coun- try are closely following this process on the northern shore of Ohio and the related watersheds. “We’re hitting two primary water-

sheds there in the Western Basin of Lake Erie — the Sandusky and Maumee. We’re going to be working with landowners and monitoring the impacts we are having,” Gebhardt said. “There are a lot of things coming down the road. We are not going to eat the whole elephant in one bite, but we have a lot of people watching us on this and we are moving forward.”

USDA announces funds to improve water quality in the Western Lake Erie Basin

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

announced $2 million in financial assis- tance through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program to help farmers in designated parts of Michigan, Ohio and Indiana prevent phosphorus from entering Western Lake Erie Basin waterways. The announcement is part of an effort to improve water quality and support jobs in the region that are generated through the hunting, fishing, and out- door recreation industry. Secretary Vilsack was joined by U.S. Senators Debbie Stabenow (MI) and Sherrod Brown (OH), and Representatives John Dingell (MI) and Marcy Kaptur (OH) for the announcement. “Our nation’s farmers and ranchers

are a tremendous partner in helping protect the environment and this initia-

tive gives them an additional opportu- nity to help address the challenges phosphorus poses to water quality in the basin,” Vilsack said. “This funding will help farmers take necessary steps to improve and protect the environ- mental health of the Lake Erie Basin, preserve habitat for the region’s fish and wildlife, and protect over 100,000 jobs that Lake Erie helps support.” This announcement recognizes the

critical role agriculture plays in con- serving our natural resources and helps support the millions of jobs that are generated through the hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation industry. Funds will address the excess amounts of phosphorus that cause blue-green algae to grow intensively in rivers and streams where it limits oxygen concen- trations in water, makes water quality

6 News • Ohio’s Country Journal • • April 2012

improvement more expensive and impacts tourism in surrounding com- munities. Applications for funding are due at local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) offices by April 27. In addition to a combination of core

conservation practices, new supporting practices show promise as tools to address phosphorus runoff, such as biofilters and controlled drainage. To support this effort, USDA assembled a team of top scientists from USDA and Purdue University that developed rec- ommended measures farmers can take to help limit phosphorus losses from agricultural operations. This announcement builds on the

larger Great Lakes Restoration Initiative that was established between 11 federal agencies in 2010 to address

critical resource concerns, including subsurface nitrogen and phosphorous losses. During the past three years, NRCS in partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency, has invested $75 million above and beyond its base program funding in the Great Lakes basin, most of which has been directed toward addressing nutrient and sediment concerns. This funding is targeted both geographically — to pri- ority watersheds that have an outsized impact on nutrient and sediment load- ing — and by core practices that are successful at reducing nutrient and sed- iment runoff. This work is producing results; a USDA report released last fall shows that farmers in the Great Lakes basin have made tremendous strides in reducing nutrient and sediment losses from their lands.

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