Written by Jeffrey Lewis, Attorney and Research Specialist, OSU Agricultural & Resource Law Program
Ohio is thirsty for some quality H2O, but the legislature has recently struggled with how to get it. After debating two separate water quality bills for over a year, the Ohio House of Representatives and the Ohio Senate finally passed H.B. 7 in December. The bi-partisan bill aims to improve water quality in Ohio’s lakes and rivers but doesn’t establish a permanent H2Ohio Trust Fund as the House had first proposed.
Even so, H.B. 7 will help fund and implement Governor Mike DeWine’s H2Ohio program. DeWine unveiled his water quality plan in 2019 to help reduce phosphorus runoff, prevent algal blooms, and prevent lead contamination in Ohio’s waterways. In July 2019, the Ohio General Assembly invested $172 million to fund the H2Ohio initiative. H.B. 7 continues those efforts by creating a statewide Watershed Planning and Management Program and directing the Ohio Department of Agriculture to implement a pilot program to assist farmers and others in phosphorus reduction efforts.
Here’s a summary of the specifics included in H.B. 7, delivered to Governor DeWine on December 30 and awaiting his signature.
Watershed planning and management program
The new Watershed Planning and Management Program established by the bill aims to improve and protect Ohio’s lakes and rivers. The Director of Agriculture will be responsible for appointing watershed planning and management coordinators throughout the seven watershed districts in Ohio. The coordinators will be responsible for identifying sources and areas of water with quality impairment, engaging in watershed planning, restoration, protection, and management activities, collaborating with other state agencies involved in water quality activities, and providing an annual report to the Director of Agriculture regarding their region’s watershed planning and management.
Certification program for farmers
A certification program for farmers in northwestern Ohio is already up and running at ODA. Even so, H.B. 7 confirms that the legislature intends to collaborate with organizations representing agriculture, conservation, and the environment and institutions of higher education engaged in water quality research to establish a certification program for farmers who utilize practices designed to minimize impacts to water quality. H.B. 7 requires the Director of Agriculture to undertake all necessary actions to ensure that assistance and funding are provided to farmers who participate in the certification program.
Watershed pilot program to reduce phosphorus in Ohio’s water
H.B. 7 authorizes but does not require the Department of Agriculture, in conjunction with the Lake Erie Commission, the Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Commission, and the Ohio State University Extension, to establish a pilot program that assists farmers, agricultural retailers, and soil and water conservation districts in reducing phosphorous and dissolved reactive phosphorous in a watershed. The program, if established, would be funded from the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s budget for water quality initiatives. Funding must be used for purchases of equipment, soil testing, implementation of variable rate technology, tributary monitoring, drainage management strategies, and implementation of nutrient best management practices.
Public record exemption for voluntary Nutrient Management Plans
Currently, a person who owns or operates agricultural land may develop and implement a voluntary nutrient management plan. A voluntary nutrient management plan provides for the proper application of fertilizer. An individual that implements a proper voluntary nutrient management plan receives an affirmative defense in any civil lawsuit involving the application of the fertilizer. In addition to the affirmative defense offered by using a voluntary nutrient management plan, H.B. 7 specifies that the information, data, and associated records used in the development and execution of a voluntary nutrient management plan is not a public record and is not subject to Ohio’s laws governing public records.