Gov. DeWine proposes 40 percent increase in H2Ohio funding

By Jim Provance - The Blade, Toledo, Ohio (TNS)

COLUMBUS — Despite uncertainty about the economy, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s two-year budget proposal hits the accelerator when it comes to his H2Ohio program targeting Lake Erie algae problems and other water quality issues, proposing a combined $68 million funding increase for the program’s third and fourth years.

H2Ohio, the cornerstone of the DeWine administration’s water-improvement efforts, was spared from broad budget cuts last fiscal year during the depths of the coronavirus-related economic shutdown.

The combined $68 million funding increase that has been proposed would be spread over the program’s third and fourth years if lawmakers approve Mr. DeWine’s recently unveiled biennium budget package.

Many state budgets operate on two-year budget cycles.

In all, the plan holds nearly a combined $240 million for H2Ohio’s third and fourth years.

H2Ohio promotes building and expanding wetlands as a means of screening out nutrient runoff that feeds algae in Lake Erie and other Ohio waterways, while also continuing to work with farmers trying keep fertilizers on their land instead of allowing them to get into local streams.

Money under the program also is used to replace failing sewer systems.

Another one of H2Ohio’s goals is to reduce lead exposure in communities by replacing lead service lines in water systems.

Matt Misicka, executive director of the Ohio Conservation Federation, said he was “surprised” and “delighted” to see that Mr. DeWine not only lived up to his promise to fully fund H2Ohio in the next budget but doubled-down with $68 million of more money.

The Ohio General Assembly has funded H2Ohio at a total of $172 million to spend over the program’s first two years.

The federation is a coalition of national, statewide, and regional sportsmen organizations.

The group has been particularly pleased with the program’s emphasis on wetland restoration, farmer incentives, and investment in improved monitoring of progress.

“A lot of this came from just decades of inattention to problems,” Mr. Misicka said. “To have funding to Ohio (Environmental Protection Agency) to give grants to communities to work on all varieties of water treatment and sewage is overdue. The longer you wait to fix a leaking roof, the more problems you’re going to have.”

The budget proposes:

—$49.3 million a year for the Ohio Department of Agriculture to financially assist more than 1,900 farmers in 26 counties in implementing nutrient, water, and erosion management best practices on more than 1 million acres. So far, 1.1 million acres in the Maumee River Basin are part of the program.

—$25 million a year for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to do more wetland construction and restoration. It would fund 44 projects involving 80,000 acres in the Lake Erie and Ohio River basins. The department previously spent $46 million on 26 wetlands projects over 3,500 acres.

—$46 million a year for the Ohio EPA to make more improvements to water and wastewater infrastructure, replacement of 1,500 service lines to reduce lead exposure, replacement of 600 more failed home sewer treatment systems across seven counties, and improvements to stream monitoring.

Pete Bucher, managing director of water policy for the Ohio Environmental Council Action Fund, said the Ohio EPA’s plan to continue replacing lead service lines, mostly leading into homes from main lines, is good. Other areas of Mr. DeWine’s budget focus on lead abatement in housing.

“It’s the biggest item not specific to nutrient loading, and it’s a worthwhile effort,” he said. “It’s a huge problem in Ohio. In Cleveland, there are about 200,000 lead service lines still in existence. Toledo has taken good steps in the last two years or so.”

The state agriculture department recently announced the release of $197,000 from current appropriations to help 154 farmers with 98,000 acres in Putnam, Hancock, and Auglaize counties to implement their voluntary nutrient management plans to reduce phosphorous runoff. The plans were approved by their local Soil and Water Conservation Districts.

Mr. DeWine envisions H2Ohio to be a $900 million, 10-year program.

While state lawmakers have been unable to agree to date on a permanent funding plan for the program, it will already have been funded to the tune of $412 million over four years if the governor’s latest proposal is adopted.

Mr. DeWine has backed the idea of a $1 billion bond issue to lock in long-term funding. Another proposal would have created a trust fund using multiple sources of money to guarantee funding in perpetuity.

“A long-term funding source is very important,” Mr. Bucher said. “If the governor is no longer in his position or agency players change over coming years and decades, priorities can change.”

The budget debate has just started in the Ohio House of Representatives. A final plan must reach the governor’s desk before the current fiscal year ends on June 30.

By Jim Provance

The Blade, Toledo, Ohio (TNS)

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