Directors of three state agencies gathered for a panel discussion of the problems with algae blooms in Ohio lakes and their relationship with dissolved phosphorous in the soil last month. It was part of the Ohio Agribusiness Association's annual Crop Production and Seed Technology Conference. Chris Henney president and CEO of the OABA, welcomed the group noting that they all have a good understanding of agriculture.
"What they don't understand they are willing to ask questions about," Henney said. "We are fortunate to have them in these positions at this time."
The panel was composed of Jim Zehringer, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, David Daniels, director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture and Scott Nally, director of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. All have some background in agriculture, Henney noted.
While agriculture has been implicated in presence of phosphorous in some soils and the potential for that nutrient to wash into streams and lakes to feed algal blooms, all three directors were quick to point out that their boss Gov. John Kasich recognized and understood the importance of agriculture to the state's economy.
"The governor understands we have to keep our farms as productive as possible," Daniels told the gathering of mainly agronomists and CCAs. "We want agriculture to take the lead on this issue."
Daniels said the department is ready to put forward a legislated plan to certify the use of the 4 R nutrient stewardship program. It calls for farmers to use the right fertilizer source, at the right rate, right time and right place.
"We hope to see a draft of a bill reasonably soon," Daniels said. "Agriculture groups have been talking for a long time about the need to follow these principles. We want a broad buy-in across the board for this from the agricultural community."
Daniels said that by being out in front on the issue agriculture would ensure the state's farmland stays as productive as it is.
Director Nally, noted that it was not just agriculture that was responsible for the situation, however. "Agriculture is not being picked on," he said. "It is just one leg of the three-legged stool contributing to the problem."
The others he cited were cities and towns discharging municipal waste and businesses emitting industrial wastes. He noted that traditionally communities pumped their waste into pipes and drains and waited for the rain to wash it into streams. To clean up they built a wastewater treatment plant at the end of the pipes. However, now when the waste backs up and there is flush of rain it just pushes on through the wastewater facilities which were not designed to handle the maximum flow.
He said projects to clean up the situation were very expensive. Columbus itself faces 138 such projects costing $15 million to $135 million each. In Akron the cost is $1 billion and the population of the city is decreasing.
"It's going to take a partnership," Nally said. "There are a lot of factors spinning at one time. Ohio has to figure this out together."
When questioned about what portion of the problem should laid on agriculture, Nally chose not to point fingers. "You can't say it's one third, one third, one third," he said. It would just be guessing and considering that last year was a drought, you can't draw a conclusion."
Zehringer noted that water has a big target on its back in Ohio right now. "Water is going to be our next oil," he predicted. "Ohio is blessed with so much (water), it is drawing a lot of attention."
He said the department was working to complete Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plans for farmers of all kinds. Farmers with manure are required to have them in distressed watersheds like Grand Lake St. Marys. However, grain farmers want them, too he said, to provide a defense for their own use of nutrients.
Zehringer said ODNR planned to consult with the other two departments in the future in determining impaired status of a watershed. Nally reported that Ohio EPA would be working with other states to resolve problems because watersheds do not follow state boundaries.
"We need to take a common sense approach to the problem," Nally said. Trading nutrient management credits farmers and communities in different states would one partnering activity that could help, he said.