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Panel appointed to study health of Lake Erie

By JIM PROVANCE • Aug 21, 2018 at 4:00 AM

COLUMBUS — After a state panel at least temporarily shelved Gov. John Kasich's move to have nearly half of Lake Erie's western basin watershed declared distressed, legislative leaders have appointed a panel to study the pollution problem.

Half of the task force's 14 members hail from northwest Ohio, including state Rep. Mike Sheehy (D., Oregon), who voiced concern that this is yet one more task force that won't lead to action.

"That was my concern in the first place, that this was an opportunity for leadership in both houses to take a hot issue and talk about it for a while until public interest goes away," he said. "We'll have another bad year with algal blooms in the western basin of Lake Erie, nothing gets done, and the public gets distracted by other things."

The panel also includes some lawmakers who are farmers or otherwise live far from the watersheds in question.

"A healthy Lake Erie is directly tied to the success and health of our state," said state Sen. Bob Hackett (R., London), the chairman of the Senate Agricultural Committee who will co-chair the task force with his House counterpart, state Rep. Brian Hill (R., Zanesville).

Both were highly critical of  Kasich's move last month to order his administration to ask the independent Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Commission to designate a large chunk of the Maumee River Basin in distress because of the high levels of phosphorous runoff that fuels toxic algal growth.

The designation would have triggered the writing of tighter rules on the use of fertilizers by the nearly 7,000 farmers in eight full and partial watersheds that flow into the river and ultimately Lake Erie.

The request won the general support of environmental groups and severe pushback from agriculture.

"The members of this group are focused on evaluating the effectiveness of steps we've taken so far, as well as making sure we have the best information possible on issues and practices that will help ensure a vibrant lake and clean water for all," Mr. Hackett said.

The panel plans to hold its first meeting on Aug. 28 at the Statehouse in Columbus and promises a session in northwest Ohio this fall. Lawmakers are currently on summer recess.

The panel includes a handful of lawmakers, including the two chairmen, who do not represent areas close to the lake but have strong ties to agriculture.

The task force members from northwest Ohio include Sens. Randy Gardner (R-Bowling Green), Edna Brown (D., Toledo), and Rob McColley (R., Napoleon), and Reps. Mike Sheehy (D., Oregon), Steve Arndt (R., Port Clinton), Jim Hoops (R., Napoleon), and Riordan McClain (R., Upper Sandusky).

The Soil and Water Conservation Commission, after hearing testimony from both sides of the issue, voted 4-2 last month to put off a decision on the Kasich administration's request, assigning the issue to a subcommittee for further discussions.

The request would have redesignated the Platter Creek, Little Flat Rock Creek, Little Auglaize River, Eagle Creek, Auglaize River, Blanchard River, St. Marys River, and Ottawa River watersheds or subwatersheds.

Together they represent about 40 percent of Ohio's share of Lake Erie's western basin.

Mr. Kasich has voiced frustration that he couldn't find a fellow Republican in the legislature will to introduce legislation to toughen the state's reaction of agricultural nutrient runoff. Mr. Sheehy said there appeared to be no effort to have Democrats--outnumbered 23-9 in the Senate and 66-33 in the House--introduce a bill.

"It's been studied to death," Sheehy said. "We need to move forward to establish a maximum daily load diet for the western basin, which is just what some environmentalists are calling for."

The state maintains voluntary efforts to date have not moved the needle in terms of meeting Ohio's commitment with Michigan and Ontario to reduce phosphorous loading into the lake by 40 percent by 2025.

The bulk of that pollution is coming from farmland runoff, it argues.

Farmers, however, have argued that they felt blindsided and singled out by Kasich's executive order.

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