State officials looking to wipe out the toxic blue-green algae plaguing Grand Lake St. Marys could declare the western Ohio lake a "watershed in distress" as early as next month.
That would pave the way for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to impose new restrictions on the manure that Grand Lake-area farmers use to fertilize fields. No one objected to the state’s plan during a key committee hearing yesterday afternoon in the Statehouse.
"At this point, we believe this is reasonable and good policy," Beth Vanderkooi, the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation’s state policy director, told lawmakers at a hearing of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review.
The 10-member panel can deny proposed state rules if it decides that they exceed or contradict state law. None of the legislators offered an objection.
Ohio Department of Natural Resources officials proposed the rules in July after toxic algae at the 13,000-acre lake grew so dense that they warned people not to touch the water, take boats out on the lake or eat any fish caught there.
State health officials believe at least eight people were probably sickened by algae-excreted liver and nerve toxins in contaminated water at the lake, located in Mercer and Auglaize counties.
The rules would make most livestock farmers south of Grand Lake St. Marys routinely test soil to see how much, if any, manure is needed to fertilize crops and draw up plans to better manage the manure. It also would ban the spreading of manure on frozen fields.
The requirements are intended to cut the amount of animal waste that washes off fields during storms. Officials think the manure is the prime source of algae-feeding phosphorus and nitrogen in the lake.
The regulations came under new scrutiny when Gov.-elect John Kasich criticized them during a Friday speech at the Farm Bureau’s annual meeting. Kasich said the lake’s problems sprang from only a few bad-actor farmers.
Vanderkooi said the Farm Bureau had concerns that the rules might exceed state law because the use of the word nutrients in farm runoff could be construed to apply to commercial fertilizers in addition to manure.
She said the group also was concerned about vague criteria the state could use to name Grand Lake, or other bodies of water, as "watersheds in distress." She said the Farm Bureau will watch to see how the agency enforces the new rules.
"It’s reasonable for this to move forward," she said.
Tom Rampe, a Grand Lake resident and trustee of the Lake Improvement Association, said the new restrictions are "the minimum that needs to be done to control ag runoff into the lake."
Though he said he would have preferred tighter limits on the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen farmers could work into their fields, he also noted that this is the first time the state has taken such a step.
"This is so much better than anything we have right now," Rampe said.