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Water quality working group finalizing recommendations

By Matt Reese

Fines for nutrient loss? A new tax on fertilizer? A moratorium on tile installation? Permits for all nutrient applications? Mandatory drainage control structures and tile filters?

This bird's eye view of the Western Basin of Lake Erie shows the sediment and harmful algal blooms that hurt water quality and will likely require some changes from agriculture.

Though some are unlikely, there are plenty of terrifying regulatory scenarios that have been conjured up as possible solutions to the challenging water quality situation in Lake Erie. The wheels of action directed at addressing the water quality problems are in motion and, while the end result is uncertain, it is likely that changes for Ohio agricultural nutrient management are coming at some point in the future.

With the goal of balancing the need for water quality improvements and a continued vibrant agricultural industry in the state, the Directors’ Agricultural Nutrients and Water Quality Working Group met earlier this week at the Ohio Department of Agriculture to finalize their extensive findings on how agriculture is contributing to water quality problems 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 will then make recommendations to the governor on how to proceed.

“At this point, the final review meeting was held. The meetings leading up and including Monday’s meeting have framed the issue, brainstormed action items and gathered a wide range of opinions,” said Greg LaBarge, who is representing Ohio State University Extension in the Working Group. “Final comments are due on Friday and the directors of the three divisions will make their final recommendations. So really, what is going to come out after the three directors meet with the governor around Feb. 1 will frame the discussion.”

The Ag Nutrients Working Group includes participation from more than 25 organizations, government agencies, and private companies including the Ohio AgriBusiness Association, the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, the Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense, USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service, The Fertilizer Institute, Heidelberg University, The Ohio State University, Morral Companies, and the Andersons.

“We’ve been involved in the process since the very beginning several months ago and have been giving input along the way. The working group grew from 30 people in the beginning to well over 100 people at this final meeting,” said Chris Henney, president and CEO for the Ohio AgriBusiness Association. “Over all there are some conflicting recommendations, but I think there is good guidance in there for the directors of the three agencies to sum up and provide some good information for the governor.”

It is generally felt that no major regulatory changes will take place until a substantial amount of additional research and information gathering is conducted to get a better handle on the challenging situation. For now, it appears that broad, voluntary measures (most notably the 4Rs) will be strongly encouraged, though no decisions will be made until after the recommendations are presented to the governor early next month.

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