Ohio needs a real plan for real water quality

Ohio needs real water quality enforcement, and a wise investment of public resources

Testimony before Ohio House Finance Committee on HB7 bill for H2Ohio Fund
Madeline Fleisher, Senior Attorney

Water is the very lifeblood of Ohio. From our long and winding rivers to the shores of the Great Lakes, our water resources are essential to the lives and livelihoods of our communities. But these waters are under threat, and today’s bill (HB7) does not adequately address the problems at hand. Ohio needs strong enforceable water quality standards, and a wise investment of public resources to achieve those goals.

As a senior attorney for the Midwest-based Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC), I have spent years tackling water pollution challenges based in our Ohio office. Over the past several years, much of my work has involved advocacy to address the longstanding and worsening crisis of phosphorus pollution in western Lake Erie. This pollution drives algae outbreaks in the basin every summer, harming the lake’s value as a resource for drinking water, recreation, and ecological treasure. ELPC has also been engaged in conversations around the problems caused by nutrient pollution across the state, from Grand Lake St. Marys to the Ohio River, which suffered an algae bloom of nearly 650 miles back in 2015.

I appreciate that the General Assembly and the Governor’s office have shown they put a high priority on doing more to reduce phosphorus pollution through the creation of the H2Ohio trust fund proposed in this bill. I think there’s little dispute that efforts to date have not solved this problem. Even where there has been substantial focus in western Lake Erie, phosphorus loading into the basin has continued. This pollution has even been exacerbated by more severe springtime rainfall associated with climate change. However, I’m here to provide ELPC’s view that more funding, even at the scale contemplated through the H2Ohio fund, is not enough.

By far the predominant source of nutrient pollution in Ohio is large-scale agriculture, from runoff of both commercial fertilizer and manure. Ohio’s primary approach to such pollution has been to encourage row crop and livestock operations to voluntarily adopt various management practices to prevent or mitigate that runoff. ELPC’s view is that such voluntary efforts will not work for years, if ever, without a robust accountability framework setting minimum, common-sense requirements for avoiding nutrient pollution.

ELPC’s view is that such voluntary efforts will not work for years, if ever, without a robust accountability framework setting minimum, common-sense requirements for avoiding nutrient pollution.

The Clean Water Act provides – in fact, requires – such a framework, in the form of a Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL. A TMDL sets an overall cap on water pollution like phosphorus and implements that cap through a plan that allocates the overall load to particular tributaries and sources, with accompanying monitoring and regulatory measures such as enforcement through Clean Water Act permits for large livestock operations. It will only set Ohio up to fail if the state throws more money at this problem without a plan for where it’s most needed and can be most effective – plus guardrails to make sure the money is used wisely.

Let’s look at one notable example of how the current approach to water quality needs additional work. Recently, ELPC partnered with the Environmental Working Group to release a study using satellite imagery to analyze the presence of livestock feeding facilities in the Maumee River watershed across Ohio and other western Lake Erie states. That analysis was important because current estimations of the sources of phosphorus pollution in western Lake Erie generally rely on outdated information about manure sources. For example, a binational report by the United States and Canada from last year stated that manure represented only about 20% of the phosphorus loading in western Lake Erie, but that report was based on data from over a decade prior. Our study showed that, since 2005, the number and size of large livestock facilities in the Maumee River watershed has increased significantly while row crop acreage has remained fairly constant – suggesting that manure may be playing a much bigger role than previously thought.

That’s particularly important because state regulations around manure application are in some key respects less stringent that for commercial fertilizer. Manure is allowed to be applied at levels far higher than the amount of fertilizer needed to actually grow crops. We did this analysis because we want to highlight these potential issues and stumbling blocks, but it’s really state governments, along with U.S. EPA, who are tasked with protecting water quality. It is these entities who need to do more to develop an up-to-date plan for where to get the most bang for any spending dollars. They must work to ensure results on the back end, before starting to write checks with taxpayer money.

Therefore, as you’re shaping the direction of the H2Ohio fund, we urge you to provide specific direction to the advisory council on spending priorities. From the start, this fund should be focused on developing a plan to gather more detailed monitoring data for the Maumee River and other watersheds. This monitoring can identify geographical areas to target for nutrient reduction efforts. It must also be consistent with Ohio’s phosphorus reduction targets for 2020 and 2025 under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Any eligibility for funding for agricultural measures, especially for industrial livestock facilities, should be conditioned on obtaining a Clean Water Act permit and adopting certain minimum requirements. For example, these sites should be required to test their soil regularly and limit nutrient application to the agronomic rate. I’m sure other water quality advocates can work with the advisory council to come up with other useful guardrails to ensure accountability and results from any spending from the H2Ohio Fund, but including that as a specific part of this bill will get them off to a running start.

Ohio has struggled with poor water quality for too long, and it’s high time something was done about it. But let’s see some real bang for the bucks in the H2Ohio fund, and set up a plan for wisely spending resources where they are most needed and where they can be most effective.

Watch the full testimony here (at 12:11)