The Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Commission is supposed to look out for all Ohioans by making sure hio’s precious natural resources aren’t squandered. Those resources include, prominently, Lake Erie, a state jewel.
Instead, by hastily shelving Gov. John Kasich’s recent executive order aimed at reducing the farm runoff feeding the lake’s destructive toxic algal blooms, the commission has shown itself beholden to farm interests at the expense of its own mandate and the state’s future.
The commission, which is not scheduled to meet again until Nov. 1, must reverse its short-sighted July 19 stall, supposedly done to study Kasich’s July 11 executive order, and it must do so soon, if necessary, via an emergency meeting.
Kasich’s order takes aim at the watersheds of eight Maumee River tributaries in western and northwestern Ohio, directing state Agriculture Director David T. Daniels to seek the soil and water panel’s consent to designate the eight watersheds as distressed. That would give the state more power to require compliance with runoff limits.
The Auglaize, Blanchard, Little Auglaize, Ottawa and St. Marys rivers and the Eagle, Little Flat Rock and Plattner creeks drain a combined watershed of about 2 million acres, The order would impact an estimated 7,000 Ohio farms but the acreage is dominated not by mom-and-pop farms but by large-scale agricultural operations, including livestock Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.
Kasich’s order was no arbitrary one that requires further study.
Rather, it’s the result of intensive Ohio research in recent years that identified agricultural runoff in these watersheds as the chief culprit fueling the algal blooms that threaten the drinking water of millions and Lake Erie’s multimillion-dollar fisheries and recreation industries.
The commission’s duck also came suspiciously one day after Ohio House Speaker Ryan Smith and other downstate GOP legislative leaders called on Kasich to rescind his Lake Erie order. Smith resides in southeast Ohio’s Bidwell, about 240 miles from the lakefront, but Ohio’s interests as a whole are at stake here — something Kasich recognizes but many others in his party appear unable to grasp.
Smith issued that call on July 18. The next day, the Soil and Water Conservation Commission surprised the Kasich administration by referring the matter to a subcommittee rather than approving the governor’s order. The commission is composed of six Kasich appointees (some originally appointed by Govs. Bob Taft and Ted Strickland) and a seventh commissioner chosen by the Ohio Federation of Soil and Water Conservation Districts.
Then there are the “stakeholders,” Ohio Statehouse-ese for lobbyists — as in: “We invite the governor and agency directors to come to the table to communicate with all stakeholders,” as Smith put it July 18.
Agribusiness interests have raised concerns about how Kasich’s administration crafted the order. The Farm Bureau said there was “no conversation with Ohio’s agriculture community.” The order also has sparked concerns about farmers’ potential compliance costs.
But on the same day Kasich issued his executive order, he signed into law Senate Bill 299, which increases funding for Lake Erie protections, including $20 million specifically earmarked to help farmers reduce agricultural runoff with edge-of-field drainage management, an “agricultural phosphorus reduction revolving loan program” and other measures.
Kasich’s order also gives the Agriculture Department the power to implement any crackdown, assuring a careful review by an agency tasked generally with keeping Ohio’s multibillion-dollar agricultural sector thriving and happy.
Smith insists the “legislature has not been sitting on its hands” about the perils Lake Erie suffers thanks to runoff.
Kasich says otherwise: “They had their chance, and they blinked, like they have done on so many other issues, including the gun laws,” Kasich told reporters this week. “We’re going to move forward on this, and I’ve explained this is going to get done one way or another because this lake has to be preserved.”
The commission should move forward, too. It needs to convene soon to confirm Kasich’s distressed watersheds designation.
This editorial was written by the editorial board of cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer. It is not necessarily the opinion of The Lima News or of AIM Media, its owner.