Voluntary incentives are not enough to help Lake Erie, researcher says

·7 min read

May 29—One of the Great Lakes region's best-known and longest-serving researchers has come out strongly against the state of Ohio's continued effort to reduce agricultural runoff with voluntary incentives for farmers, saying he's now convinced there's "not even a glimmer of hope" they will ever do enough to reverse western Lake Erie's chronic algal blooms.

Jeff Reutter, Ohio Sea Grant and Ohio State University Stone Laboratory's retired director, told about 25 journalists during a recent briefing that he's seen no data supporting the belief that cover crops, no-till farming, windbreaks, buffer strips, drainage control structures, and similar incentives will ever be embraced widely enough to make an appreciable dent in the levels of algae-forming phosphorus and nitrogen that escape northwest Ohio farms and pollute the Maumee River and Lake Erie's other tributaries.

While serving as a panelist at an event hosted by the Montana-based Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources, Mr. Reutter said he believes Gov. Mike DeWine's H2Ohio program is a well-meaning effort, but mostly because it is promoting new and expanded wetlands.

"I think the governor is really trying to do the right thing," Mr. Reutter said. "We're not going to solve this with wetlands, but it's a real good thing to do because it's permanent."

As for the millions of additional dollars being offered to farmers so they can afford to embrace often-costly "best management practices," he said his patience has run out.

Mr. Reutter said he has waited for voluntarily incentives to make a meaningful difference, but is now convinced they're the wrong strategy.

"i wish I could say I agree, but I can't," Mr. Reutter said about Ohio's heavy reliance on incentives. "I would say there's not even a glimmer of hope."

His comments amplify a longstanding policy debate among local, state, and federal officials over how much they should rely on cooperation from the agricultural sector in lieu of tougher regulations.

That question is the crux of a landmark lawsuit now before Senior U.S. District Judge James Carr.

In that case, two plaintiffs — the Environmental Law & Policy Center and Lucas County Board of Commissioners — accuse the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of allowing the state of Ohio to go too soft on agriculture. The plaintiffs claim the federal Clean Water Act is being violated unless tougher rules are imposed.

Joy Mulinex, whom Governor DeWine chose two years ago to be the Ohio Lake Erie Commission's executive director, said she has long respected Mr. Reutter but believes he is too harsh and premature in his assessment of voluntary agricultural incentives.

"It's going to take some time to get us out of the situation we're in. It's not going to happen overnight," she said.

Voluntary agricultural incentives and so-called best management practices have been promoted by several administrations in various forms, but Ms. Mulinex points out that Mr. DeWine's program is the biggest and broadest to date. She understands the frustration, but also said it is misleading to lump them all together.

Her bottom line: Give H2Ohio a chance.

"H2Ohio is really the state of Ohio's first concerted effort to address what we have said for a number of years is our problem, which is the phosphorus coming off farm fields," Ms. Mulinex said. "From the policy perspective, we have shaken things up."

Mr. Reutter has been a Lake Erie researcher since the 1970s, and has represented the state of Ohio on a number of high-profile Great Lakes boards and commissions.

In his former role with Ohio Sea Grant and OSU's Stone Laboratory, he gave expert testimony and held annual legislative days on Lake Erie's Gibraltar Island for members of Congress and governors from both political parties.

He was sought out for his expertise by their aides and a slew of state, local, and county officials as well.

A few years ago, Mr. Reutter led Ohio's negotiations with the U.S.-Canada International Joint Commission, which resulted in an agreement by Ohio, Michigan, and the province of Ontario to reduce their phosphorus loadings into western Lake Erie 40 percent by 2025.

Many experts now say that goal seems unachievable, based on what little progress has been made.

"I take his opinions about Lake Erie very seriously," Ms. Mulinex said, adding that she has known him for decades.

And Mr. Reutter isn't the only high-profile figure whose patience with the voluntary approach is running thin.

Craig Butler, who was the Ohio EPA director for most of former Gov. John Kasich's administration, said near the end of his tenure that agriculture's efforts, while capable of functioning, just weren't being embraced on a broad enough scale to achieve desired results.

Mr. Butler's Lake Erie program director, Karl Gephardt, expressed similar views back then.

Mr. Butler told The Blade recently he agrees with Mr. Reutter's position.

"We realized this and [that] is why we moved to have the commission declare the western basin as a watershed in distress, like we did at Grand Lake St. Marys," Mr. Butler said.

He agreed H2Ohio "will have some well-intentioned projects and garner some positive lasting results.

"And I'm a fan of voluntary programs," Mr. Butler said. "But we came to realize the scale of the problem is too great to only rely on these voluntary measures alone given the time we had to achieve the goal."

He said it appears the DeWine administration is offering bigger and broader incentives to the agricultural industry.

"But if they don't show progress, they would need to pivot and talk about other nonvoluntary measures to meet the mandated 40 percent reduction," Mr. Butler said.

Many environmentalists, policy experts, and scientists like Mr. Reutter believe the runoff problem is exacerbated by northwest Ohio's rapid increase in livestock, especially at facilities large enough or nearly large enough to be classified as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. They are also called concentrated animal feeding facilities, or CAFFs, by the Ohio Department of Agriculture.

While agriculture officials maintain that manure from all of those cows, hogs, and chickens is responsibly managed, critics believe crop fields using the waste as fertilizer have become over-saturated with it.

"Jeff believes the number of CAFFs is so high you could never manage the manure," Ms. Mulinex said. "[But] as long as that manure is being spread on land that needs it, that's not going to be a problem."

Toledo Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz, a Democrat, is among Ohio agriculture's harshest critics.

At a Great Lakes event in Ann Arbor three years ago, he began his presentation by claiming Ohio is a state "where our legislature is a wholly owned subsidiary of the farm bureau."

At numerous events since then, including one recently, he has said the conservative-controlled Ohio General Assembly offers nothing but carrots and needs to govern with more sticks.

"So far, we haven't come up with any sticks. We're only offering carrots. The incentives so far aren't working," Mr. Reutter agreed in his latest presentation.

As for the agricultural use of manure, he added: "It's really not fertilization. This is waste disposal."

Ms. Mulinex said the DeWine administration believes it can get more cooperation from farmers with incentives.

"I just don't think we have enough information that the incentives offered through H2Ohio aren't enough," she said.

Ty Higgins, an Ohio Farm Bureau Federation spokesman, said the state of Ohio "is already using a pretty big stick" and claims Ohio "has one of the most comprehensive [suites of] regulations in place for agriculture."

He cited a livestock environmental permitting program, certified livestock manager credentialing, a state pollution abatement program, and mandatory training and certification for applying manure and commercial fertilizer. Its largest facilities also are subject to federal National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, or NPDES, administered by the U.S. EPA under the Clean Water Act.

"When it comes to voluntary measures, Ohio farmers have stepped up in a major way by enrolling over a million acres into H2Ohio in its first phase alone," Mr. Higgins said. "As those initial farmers in the Maumee River watershed put more conservation measures in place, H2Ohio plans to expand to millions of additional acres in the entire Lake Erie watershed."

Mr. Higgins said there is "no carrot or stick that would satisfy agriculture's biggest critics."

First Published May 29, 2021, 1:30pm

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