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Gov. DeWine unveils $900 million investment plan in Lake Erie

Liz Skalka • Updated Mar 18, 2019 at 9:46 AM

Gov. Mike DeWine will ask legislators to set aside $900 million to fund long-term investments in the health of Ohio’s waterways and Lake Erie, which perennially battles toxic algal blooms that five years ago poisoned the city’s water supply.

The governor teased new details of his previously announced H2Ohio fund at a conference Thursday in Toledo, where voters just approved a bill of rights for Lake Erie that would allow residents to file lawsuits on behalf of the lake to protect it from polluters.

“The western Lake Erie basin, as you all know, has been hit particularly hard by algae blooms for a number of years,” DeWine said. “In 2014, many Toledo residents could not use water from their tap. Because of the annual bloom, charter boat captains must travel farther and father out into the lake because the lake water is so thick and green.”

The mandate for the H2Ohio fund is broad: It would go toward creating new conservation easements and designating more areas as wetlands, investing in new technology to help combat pollution, and taking more aggressive action to address failing septic tanks. Mr. DeWine wants the funds earmarked for investments over the next decade.

“Communities throughout Ohio face different water problems and it’s really going to take a dedicated, long-term commitment to achieve real solutions to protect Ohio’s water,” DeWine told the audience at Impact Ohio’s Toledo Regional Conference.

The $900 million request is included in the biennial budget proposal Mr. DeWine will present to state lawmakers on Friday. He said the money will be sourced from the current year’s budget rollover and over the next two fiscal years. His budget spells out how the first year’s $85 million would be spent, but the rest of the allocation would be decided down the road.

“We do not provide beyond that because quite candidly, we need additional planning,” he said. “The whole purpose of setting aside this money now is so we don’t lurch from budget to budget. We set it aside now and commit that we’ll spend over the next 10 years and follow what good science tells us to do.”

During his campaign, DeWine said he was in favor of a $1 billion bond issue to accomplish many of the same goals for Ohio’s waterways and Lake Erie. But by allocating the money upfront, taxpayers would save $475 million in interest, he said.

“The money that has been spent in the past in regard to Lake Erie has been spent on a lot of different things. We’ve got to focus a lot of this money on the phosphorus, the nutrients that are going in,” he said in a meeting with Blade Publisher and Editor-in-Chief John Robinson Block; Keith Burris, editor, vice president, and editorial director of Block Newspapers; and The Blade’s editorial board.

Environmental advocates criticized DeWine’s predecessor, Gov. John Kasich, for not doing enough early in his tenure to protect Lake Erie, waiting until his final year in office to sign an executive order seeking to have much of the Maumee River watershed declared distressed. The Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Commission then repeatedly delayed Kasich’s request, which would have triggered stricter regulations for farmers.

DeWine hasn’t rescinded the order, but has placed it on hold while his new agricultural director meets with stakeholders across the state.

DeWine is seeking to combat the phosphorus runoff problem that feeds toxic algal blooms with investment rather than ironclad regulations opposed by the agricultural industry.

“Wetlands and conservation easements sound admirable, but 'long term investments' that seem to mitigate the problem should account for only one layer of the solution. The more immediate and necessary short-term actions are seemingly absent here — leaving the source of the phosphorous runoff to continue at its legally regulated amount, an amount that we have seen far exceeds the capacity of Lake Erie to handle. Perhaps instead of trying to combat pollution, we should seek to limit its presence at the source as much as possible,” said Markie Miller of Toledoans for Safe Water.

In a statement, the Ohio Farm Bureau said it looks forward to working with the DeWine administration on H2Ohio.

“The governor’s approach to water quality is refreshing for Ohio agriculture. The H2Ohio initiative and its extensive resources shows an understanding of the complexities that come with this issue. This funding is a great example of how this governor is fully committed to work with farmers throughout the state toward the common goal of clean water,” said Adam Sharp, the group’s vice president.

The current biennial budget DeWine inherited from former Gov. John Kasich totals $65 billion. Through February, with four months to go before the end of the fiscal year, tax collections have been largely on target with projections set by Mr. Kasich. The state has collected $70.9 million, or 0.5 percent, above the estimate.

Also, as of the end of February, the state reported that it has spent nearly $607 million less than it had projected at this point. Unless the administration diverts the money, any surplus would automatically be added to the state's $2.7 billion "rainy day" budgetary reserves, which DeWine said he will not do.

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