Karl Gebhardt, 59, has been named the new chief of the Division of Soil and Water Resources of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. He was appointed by Jim Zehringer, director of ODNR a week ago.
Gebhardt was raised on a small farm in Mahoning County and brings a wide range of experience to the job including numerous positions at the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation where he started as an organizational director and ended as director of local affairs. He left the group in 1996 to go to work on governmental relations for the Rural Electric Cooperatives. He also served as the head of the Office of Farmland Preservation for the Ohio Department of Agriculture. He then joined Robert Teater, former director of ODNR, to from the natural resources consulting firm Teater & Gebhardt. Most recently he ran his own business Gebhardt & Associates, which also focused on government relations and natural resources.
Gebhardt replaces Ted Lozier who is now a deputy chief at the division along with John Kessler. I had a chat with the new chief this week and here are some of the things he had to say.
OF: You were appointed by Director Jim Zehringer, the former director of ODA. What kind of relationship have you had with him in the past?
Gebhardt: I've always respected the director. We worked together when he was in the legislature because he has a strong ag background. He brings a very good perspective to Natural Resources and he is very attuned to agriculture. He is a farmer and he knows the folks the industry – personally.
OF: What are the immediate challenges for the division?
Gebhardt: I've only been on the job seven days and I have met with a lot of people. So the challenges have changed depending on the hour and the meeting. But clearly the nutrient management issue is No. 1. We have plenty there to work on to make sure we avoid similar situations in other streams and bodies of water. Weather has been the main driver of the situation. Record precipitation this year has brought to the forefront the issue of nutrient loading in prime agricultural watersheds.
OF: Manure application restrictions have been placed on farmers in the Grand Lake St. Marys Watershed. Will new regulations have to be established for farmers in the Lake Erie Water Basin as well?
Gebhardt: We have learned some things from Grand Lake St. Marys and we need to expand on that knowledge. Water quality the Lake Erie Basin is a huge issue because that watershed drains about one third of the state. But the two watersheds are very different. Manure plays a big role in Grand Lake St. Marys, but livestock are not as prevalent as other nutrient sources in the Lake Erie Watershed.
OF: What role will farmers play?
Gebhardt: Agriculture has to continue to be engaged. Farmers have done a good job with no-till and grass waterways and buffer and filter strips and more cover crops. We want to work to get more practices on the ground. But we are not panicking. We will work with the Water Quality Lab at Heidelberg College to try to determine where the nutrients come from. That's the problem with non-point source problems – they are hard to pinpoint. You know there was a time when they said farmers could not make no-till work and farmers stepped up and did it. The director and I will get together and make some recommendations.
OF: As a Delaware County township trustee, you served on the Conservation Program Delivery Task Force under direction of the Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Commission to make recommendations on improving effectiveness and efficiency of delivering services of Ohio's Soil and Water Conservation Districts. What has come from that group?
Gebbhardt: The final report of the task force was presented to the legislature in December. It is available on line at the division's web site http://www.dnr.state.oh.us/tabid/23562/Default.aspx. There are a series of recommendations. Some apply to the districts. Some to the Soil and Water Conservation Commission and some to the division. We will decide how to proceed with those in the coming months.
OF: With county budgets being stretched the issue of consolidation of local districts was brought up particularly in a report from Battelle Institute.
Gebhardt: Consolidation was a hot button topic. The task force recommended that authority be granted to local districts to consolidate if they choose to. No recommendation was made to do so. It would be driven by the local decision and the option to decouple was proposed if at a later date a district wanted to go back to its original designation. There needs to be an opinion from the attorney general before any action can be taken.
OF: With reduced resources how will districts and the division proceed?
Gebhardt: We all must try to focus our resources both human and dollar resources on specific problem areas. At the state level we know nutrient loading in the western part of the state and oil shale drilling in the eastern part are big issues. I have been meeting with the heads of NRCS and EPA and we are working to concentrate our resources in more organized approach. We need to re-evaluate the shotgun approach we have been using to fund. We need to make sure what funds we do have go projects that will make a difference.