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Ohio water quality bill gets revamped to buy time for research

Last summer, the Ohio Legislature introduced Senate Bill 150 to address the growing concerns of water quality, in large part through regulating nutrient management of agricultural operations.

While agriculture is undoubtedly a contributor of the phosphorus being blamed for the continued problems of toxic algae development in Ohio’s lakes and streams, there is also clearly still much to learn about this complex challenge and the best solutions in addressing it.

After a summer’s worth of work from legislators, agricultural organizations and other stakeholders, a new version of SB 150 was introduced in early November that pulls back on the reins a bit so the ongoing research can get ahead of the legislation.

“The development of algal blooms on numerous lakes across Ohio show there are still questions to answer regarding the quality of water in the state. These blooms also show that water quality issues go far beyond agricultural nutrients and we strongly encourage a more comprehensive review of water infrastructure in Ohio,” said Adam Ward, executive director of the Ohio Soybean Association. “By allowing the OSU research to be completed and farm organizations to develop and promote practical education programs, we will be doing our part to find long-term solutions that work.”

The substitute bill of SB 150 was introduced by Sen. Cliff Hite and Sen. Bob Peterson on Nov. 6.
“This is a substitute bill that is completely revamped,” said Jerry Bambauer, president of the Ohio Soybean Association. “This is a step in the right direction compared to the first bill. The first bill did a lot to move to mandatory nutrient management plans through the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. This bill removes everything from the ODNR with regard to fertilizer and keeps certification at the Ohio Department of Agriculture.”

The original bill included a fertilizer certification program for farmers and commercial applicators without exemptions. In addition, the original SB 150 contained provisions requiring farmers to have nutrient management plans approved by ODNR in any “distressed watershed.” With this, a farmer potentially could have been required to have an approved plan in the Lake Erie Watershed as well, Bambauer said.

The new version will still require farmers (only one per farming operation) to be certified to apply fertilizer, but it will exempt any fertilizer applied during planting (through the planter). Farmers may also be required to keep records regarding the application of fertilizer. The new SB 150 also sets up a voluntary nutrient management plan to give farmers an affirmative defense against lawsuits when the farmer is following the 4Rs of nutrient management. SB 150 is going to be considered by the legislature in the coming months.

Ward recently testified as an interested party to SB 150. In his testimony, Ward emphasized that Ohio’s crop producers have already been proactive about this issue by funding research and education programs that will help find practical solutions.

OSA and our sister organization, the Ohio Soybean Council (OSC) take the water quality issue with Grand Lake St. Marys and Lake Erie very seriously,” Ward said in his testimony. “OSC, the Ohio Corn Marketing Board and the Ohio Small Grains Marketing Board have invested in research led by The Ohio State University to help understand how phosphorus in the dissolved state is leaving the farm field.”

On behalf of OSA, Ward commended the work of Sen. Hite and Sen. Peterson for bringing forth a bill that their members could accept. However, Ward went on to stress that while OSA farmer leaders are willing to accept a fertilizer certification program, there is a significant incentive moving forward to get this portion of the bill written correctly based upon the research that is taking place.

“OSA believes one of the most important sections of the certification program is the ability for the Director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture to revoke or suspend the license of a farmer,” Ward said. “OSA believes farmers acting recklessly when spreading nutrients is unacceptable. OSA looks forward to engaging the agency to develop common sense regulations to keep nutrients out of waterways.”

In his testimony, Ward pointed out that farmers are already implementing many best management practices on their farms because they also value the quality of Ohio’s waterways and that continued research is vital to finding real answers. OSA and other agriculture organizations believe that no regulation or mandates should take place before research is completed.

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