Two fields along the same stretch of Road P at the intersection of Road 11-J show a stark contrast between buffer strip widths - Putnam Sentinel
Two fields along the same stretch of Road P at the intersection of Road 11-J show a stark contrast between buffer strip widths.

PUTNAM COUNTY — Near the end of September, members from the Putnam County Soil & Water Board met with the county’s Engineer, Mike Lenhart; Auditor, Robert Benroth; and Commissioner Michael Lammers. The discussion centered on the creation of 10 foot buffers along the county’s petition maintenance ditches. The Soil & Water Board wanted to know if it should pursue more funding, both for their placement and potentially to compensate farmers for the loss of land.

“We just want to know if everybody’s in support of it,” said Jeff Duling, a Soil & Water Board Supervisor. “If so, we’ll go ahead and try to look for funding. But, if we’re not all in support of this, then, to me, we can go continue doing our regular jobs.”

“We have four different offices involved,” Duling continued. “Our office is mainly here for the water quality. That’s why we’re looking at it. The engineers office is looking at it from a maintenance standpoint. From the Auditor’s side, from what I’ve understood, we can take that 10 foot buffer out and reduce our taxes on farmland because of that. I guess the commissioner’s side of it is mainly the support of the program. If we’re not all in support, it doesn’t do us any good to go out there by ourselves and try and accomplish it.”

This conversation occurs as the State is discussing possible solutions to the impairment of the Western Basin of Lake Erie. This includes the recent passages of SB299, which becomes effective today, Oct. 10, 2018. The legislation includes $20 million to be spent on efforts to reduce total phosphorus and dissolved reactive phosphorus from entering Lake Erie. Priority will be given to the subwatersheds outlined in Kasich’s Exec. Order, four of which flow through Putnam County. How exactly these funds will be spent is yet to be determined.

From SWCD’s perspective, it is crucial to show a good faith effort towards solving the problem. Within this context, it is important to note what the impact of the filter strips might be.

According to an OSU Extension study shared by Curt Tobe, Ag Nutrient Technician with the SWCD, “For those filter-width studies where sediment, phosphorus and nitrogen trapping were evaluated, the results indicate that filter strips were more effective in consistently removing sediment than either phosphorus or nitrogen. The results for nitrogen and phosphorus removal were highly variable; total phosphorus removal ranged from zero to 83 percent, and total nitrogen removal ranged from 27 to 87 percent.”

“Filter-strip width is an important factor…Indiana study results indicated that a filter width greater than eight feet showed very little increase in effectiveness, at least for those study conditions. The results from the Iowa demonstrations indicated no improvement in filter effectiveness beyond a 30-foot filter width.”

The wide range of strips studied under different soil types, vegetation and conditions, and the variable results produced, does not make the argument for their use and placement an easy one to make. For area farmers though, the potential nutrient load reduction is not the only benefit.

“There’s something else too,” said SWCD’s Jeff Nordhaus. “Look at the amount of dredge material that we take out of the Maumee River compared to all the other rivers in the state of Ohio…We’re losing our topsoil by not trying to keep it up there in the fields. That 10 foot buffer would help dramatically in keeping that soil in the field.”

“According to the Ohio Revised Code (Section 6131.14),” offered PC Engineer Mike Lenhart, “Whenever you do a petition ditch, you’re supposed to do a four to 15 foot strip. In the past, [the county] let the landowners dictate whether or not that was put-in.”

“My office is supposed to determine that four to 15 foot width for erosion and sediment control purposes,” Lenhart continued. “It’s not for maintenance purposes. It’s not for any other purpose. [The law] clearly says it’s for sediment control. So, on all new [petition maintenance ditches] that we’ve been doing, we’ve just been mandating 10 foot.”

Though required by Ohio’s Revised Code, the purpose of this meeting was not to enforce the law, but to see if there might be a way to fund the creation of filter strips and possibly compensate farmers for the potential loss of productive land.

“How many acres are we possibly taking out of production?” asked Commissioner Michael Lammers.

As explained by Lenhart, this is a very difficult question to answer. There are approximately 435 miles of open ditch with required maintenance in the county. Some run alongside roadways, so only one side of the ditch would need a buffer. A number of open ditches run through residential yards with existing grass lawns, and no buffer strip needed. Others were petitioned for only one-sided construction, and so the filter strip would only be on that one side as well. Some are already a part of other conservation programs, and would need to be excluded from new efforts.

Even with the difficulty answering the question on how many acres might be removed, the Auditor’s office may be able to provide a form of compensation.

“We would most likely consider it a ditch easement,” stated Auditor Robert Benroth. “That would be taxed at the lowest [rate], which is currently $230. This is what the new conservation program is taxing at. That’s at the lowest per-acre value of CAUV, currently.”

However, Benroth also intends for his office to change how some of this land is viewed for taxation purposes. “In Putnam County we have historically put a value on our ditches and creeks. So, if you own a 40-acre farm, and a ditch cuts through it, you actually are paying some tax on that.”

“Now, it sounds like an easy push of the software button to change that, but it isn’t. Because you have to go through each landowner who has those and individually change them out.”

“I am of the opinion that ditches and creeks should not have any value put on, even the lowest value, because we don’t do that for roads. If you buy a farm, and you own half the center of that road, that’s a public road. There’s an easement and anyone can use it. Why should the farmer be paying? So he doesn’t, not on a road.”

“The ditch, of course not anybody can use it, but it may be several people, several parcels that use that ditch. It’s a public waterway. You can’t close it in. You can’t cover it up. It’s for water.”

“Within the next two years…We’re going to go through the whole county, all the ditches and rivers and creeks and everything, get a specific acreage, and change those to no value. And, if this 10 foot [filter strip] materializes, again, it would be a regulation, a requirement, because of the ditch. So, to me, it would make sense that it would be valued as conservation.”

“From our office,” said Jeff Giesege, District Technician with SWCD, “We’re on the side of the farmer. So, anything we can do to…take a proactive approach to putting grass strips in may circumvent some other regulations.”