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Farmer Kevin Elder comments on the proposed distressed watershed designations.

Public comments on watersheds in distress

By Matt Reese

The public got to weigh in with thoughts on the proposed Watersheds in Distress designation on Nov. 20. There were a number of concerns raised in the comments including the costs of the designation, the challenging logistics, the legalities, and a lack of practicality of implementation. In addition, a number of residents from the Grand Lake St. Marys Watershed expressed concern about a provision standardizing rules in Ohio’s distressed watersheds.

“As we’ve gone through the rule making process, we thought it would be best to standardize things. As it is right now, Grand Lake St. Marys has a calendar ban on manure application and the Western Lake Erie Basin has a frozen and snow covered ban in statute based on Senate Bill 1,” said Mark Bruce with the Ohio Department of Agriculture. “As part of the designation of the watersheds in distress, the [Kasich] Administration felt it was best to try and standardize that. Basically the proposed rules removed the date ban that was in effect for Grand Lake St, Marys to standardize all watersheds in distress. Some folks at Grand Lake St. Marys didn’t think that was a good idea and that is what they said. We listen to those and then a policy decision will be made whether to keep it as it is or change the rules.”

Grand Lake St. Marys is currently the only distressed watershed in Ohio. It has been highlighted as a success story, and data was provided at the public comment meeting to demonstrate a clear move in a positive direction in the watershed since it was declared “distressed” back in 2011. The repeated concerns expressed by those who made statements on behalf of the success in the watershed revolved around the fact that the cooperative measures for Grand Lake St. Marys, including the date ban in place for manure application, should not be tampered with because they are working.

Bruce said the public comment meeting was the next step in the ongoing rule making process that started this summer when Gov. John Kasich signed an executive order targeting eight sub-watersheds in the western basin of Lake Erie that will be considered for designation under state law as “Watersheds in Distress.”

“This is the epitome of sausage making right now. We are going through the rulemaking and the drafting process and this is how it works. This was a public hearing on the proposed rule changes that will go before the Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review (JCARR) coming up in December. It was an opportunity for people to comment and share their thoughts on the rules that we have proposed,” Bruce said. “The Administration has requested that eight watersheds be declared as in distress. Along those lines we have also proposed changes to the rules that would govern how those watersheds in distress are governed. There were maybe two dozen folks who came and shared their opinions. We as a department will prepare a summary of what was said and decide if any more changes need to be made for the rules.

“Our mission at the Ohio Department of Agriculture is to listen and get input. That is why we have public hearings, so everybody can come and share their thoughts from a whole different range of backgrounds. That is what you want so that we know the best way to make the rules and regulations that impact them.”

At the December JCARR meeting, the legislative committee will decide whether or not to take action on the proposed rules.

“After that, the next time the Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Commission (OSWCC) meets, they would be expected to likely take action on the actual designation, whether or not to declare the watersheds as distressed,” Bruce said. “The way the law is written currently, JCARR can let these rules go into place but the OSWCC also has to approve them before they can be final filed. If JCARR were to let these rules go into place, the OSWCC has two items to decide, whether or not to accept the rules and also whether or not to designate the watersheds as distressed.”

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