Satellite image of Lake Erie taken on September 23, 2017. The bright green areas show the peak of 2017’s algal bloom. (NOAA derived image from Copernicus Sentinel-3a data from EUMETSAT)
Satellite image of Lake Erie taken on September 23, 2017. The bright green areas show the peak of 2017’s algal bloom. (NOAA derived image from Copernicus Sentinel-3a data from EUMETSAT)

PUTNAM COUNTY — As 2018 drew to a close, both the federal government and the state of Ohio passed bills that included initiatives designed to improve Lake Erie’s water quality. A good deal of the funding targets water and nutrient management, and some can be expected to flow into Putnam County. What follows is a round-up of Lake Erie legislation that may be of interest to area farmers.

As noted by Senator Rob Portman, the Farm Bill signed into law on Dec. 20, “…triples funding for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), from $100 million to $300 million for the next five years.”

The RCPP encourages voluntary conservation efforts to increase the restoration and sustainable use of soil, water, wildlife and related natural resources on regional or watershed scales. It does so by connecting conservation partners with producers and private landowners to design and implement solutions.

Qualifying projects may then be selected to receive financial awards to help cover their costs. Projects in ‘Critical Conservation Areas,’ which includes the Great Lakes Region, receive 35 percent of funding.

The Farm Bill also created a new Clean Lakes, Estuaries, and Rivers (CLEAR) Program, championed by Senator Sherrod Brown. This new program will prioritize enrolling lands in the Conservation Reserve Program that will best prevent runoff and protect water quality.

“This bipartisan bill is good for farmers, good for taxpayers, and good for Lake Erie,” Brown said. “I’m proud of our work to keep Lake Erie and Ohio waterways clean for the businesses, farmers and residents who rely on them, while also maintaining quality farmland for Ohio farmers.”

In addition to those priorities from the State’s two Senators, the Farm Bill will also:

• Authorize advanced payments for beginning farmers as a part of the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP). This program would reserve funding for conservation practices that protect drinking water.

• Include reforms to the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which would prioritize cover crops and crop rotations.

• Authorize increased payments for the top 10 high-priority practices that protect the environment.

Gov. Kasich also signed Senate Bill 51 into law on Dec. 20. This bill includes provisions addressing flooding in the Findlay area and water quality improvements to Lake Erie.

$15 million was included for Eagle Creek Watershed Flood Mitigation project in Hancock Co., with a local matching fund requirement of 20 percent. A change was also made to the Soil and Water Phosphorus Program, which received its initial $20 million in funding from the state this past July.

Previously, the Dept. of Ag. was required to consult with the Lake Erie Commission and the Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Commission for establishing program rules. Now, the Dept. of Ag. will be able to establish programs entirely on its own, with the majority of funds targeted towards, “…those subwatersheds determined to be highest in total phosphorus and dissolved reactive phosphorus nutrient loading.”

If the subwatersheds so determined comprises those in Gov. Kasich’s Exec. Order, which was also released in July of 2018, then it will include three that flow through Putnam County: Auglaize River, Little Auglaize River, and the Blanchard River. This makes it likely that the programs created by the Dept. of Ag. will target this area as well.

Additionally, the Ohio Department of Higher Education has set aside $2,000,000 every year since 2015 to fund research to: (1) help water treatment plants produce safe drinking, (2) assess the human health risks associated with algal toxins, (3) describe how blooms behave, and (4) address nutrient runoff. Ohio State University and University of Toledo have cooperatively managed these funds. Though not part of this year’s legislative session at the state or federal level, the research effort remains an important contributor to the additional efforts announced throughout 2018.

The aforementioned July bill, SB 299, is where the state made its largest contributions towards cleaning up the Western Basin of Lake Erie. In addition to creating the Soil and Water Phosphorus Program and providing for its funding, the bill also appropriated an additional $3.5 million to support Soil and Water Districts, an additional $10 million for the Healthy Lake Erie Initiative, and $2,650,000 to build new laboratory space at the Stone Laboratory and buy in-lake monitoring equipment.

That $3.5 million has been distributed among a number of Ohio counties on a tiered basis, with priority going towards those Soil & Water districts with waterways that flow into the Western Basin of Lake Erie. According to Jeff Duley, Supervisor with Putnam County Soil & Water, the county will receive $60,000 in January, which it plans to put towards staffing and providing additional training opportunities to farmers and farm workers.

Duley also informed The Sentinel that the PC Soil & Water signed an agreement last week with the EPA for a three year project that will bring a subsurface nutrient applicator toolbar to the county. The device, which can cost up to $150,000, injects fertilizer at a variable rate right into the ground, which, it is believed, will reduce nutrient runoff during rain events.

The subsurface nutrient applicator toolbar will be offered to farmers as a service, and will apply potash and phosphate in one pass. To qualify, farmers have to designate a particular field they want to use the machine on, and soil in that field must be recently tested for fertilizer load using grid sampling. The fertilizer that is applied can be purchased from any provider. Duley also said that they hope to get a seed feeder box to put down cover crops at the same time that the fertilizer is injected.

The applicator is expected to be available to area farmers in 2019, with Duley saying, “By the time wheat’s off, it should be ready.”