Gov. John Kasich likely didn’t make many new friends in the ag community when he signed an executive order this week that could eventually lead to increased regulations on fertilizer.
But in calling for certain northwestern Ohio rivers and creeks, including our own Blanchard River and Eagle Creek, to be labeled “distressed watersheds,” Kasich may have forced the nutrient pollution issue to be dealt with more aggressively — something that has been needed for some time.
Many people, including Kasich, who leaves office at year’s end, have been calling for a tougher approach to fighting toxic algae for several years, but state lawmakers have been slow to act. As a result, the health of Lake Erie continues to suffer.
Each summer algal blooms, fed by phosphorus and nitrogen, appear in the western basin, threatening municipal water supplies and dampening recreational activities.
Kasich’s order is no cure, but he would be negligent if he didn’t do everything in his power to draw attention to a problem that won’t fix itself.
On the other hand, it may take much more than the governor’s command to move the nutrient pollution needle. The Grand Lake St. Mary’s watershed has been on the distressed list for five years, and nutrient levels there have not significantly dropped.
The request to classify eight watersheds as distressed comes as a result of high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen, which are found in both fertilizer and manure, being detected at various points in the Maumee River basin, before the nutrients reach the lake. While there are other sources of nutrient pollution, including municipal wastewater treatment plants, farm-field runoff is considered the most significant contributor.
Kasich’s action was likely taken because Ohio isn’t close to being on track to meet a 40 percent reduction of phosphorus and nitrogen levels by 2025. That’s the goal Ohio, Michigan and Canada collectively set in an effort to clean up Lake Erie.
If the Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Commission agrees next week to the watersheds’ distress designation, farmers would eventually be subject to new rules regarding fertilizer storage, handling and application. It would require about 7,000 farms in all to have an updated nutrient management plan.
While the greatest pressure is being put on agriculture to change its practices, the burden should be shared by all who indirectly add nutrients to Ohio’s waterways. That can include businesses and municipalities, and even residential property owners.
When it comes to the flooding issue in the Blanchard River watershed, there have been consistent calls from many for a regular cleaning of the river and its tributaries of logjams and other debris.
But all rivers must be free of excessive amounts of fertilizers and sewage, as well. That may be accomplished if farmers apply fertilizer at an acceptable agronomic rate and municipal wastewater plants properly treat discharge.
Many farmers have already made voluntary efforts to reduce fertilizer runoff under a 2014 law, but may need more tools and resources to take it to the next step. Some financial help should be available from related legislation signed this week.
Kasich was right to light the fire that renews the discussion and forces the hand of lawmakers to take corrective action to reduce nutrient loading in Lake Erie.
Everyone, not just farmers, needs to take ownership of the problem. Being labeled distressed is depressing, but should motivate us to stop the denial and work to find a solution.