Tag Archives: agricultural nutrients

Changes to Ohio’s Lake Erie Commission will impact agriculture and Lake Erie water quality

By Ellen Essman, Law Fellow, OSU Agricultural & Resource Law Program

The Ohio legislature recently enacted a bill expected to enhance Ohio’s efforts to address water quality in Lake Erie.  Senate Bill 2, a far reaching environmental bill, contains several revisions to the Ohio Lake Erie Commission (OLEC) and Ohio’s Lake Erie Protection and Restoration Strategy.

The purpose of OLEC is to advise on the development, implementation, and coordination of Lake Erie programs and policies and to oversee the management of the Lake Erie Protection Fund.   For Ohio agriculture, the most important of S.B. 2’s revisions to OLEC is the expansion of OLEC’s purpose to include “issues related to nutrient-related water quality.”  This change reveals a new focus on nutrient impacts on Lake Erie’s water quality and a resulting charge for OLEC to implement the Ohio EPA’s current plan for reducing phosphorous levels in the Lake by 40% by 2025.

Furthermore, S.B. 2 broadens and strengthens OLEC’s role in coordinating and funding policies, programs and priorities related to Lake Erie.  Coordination with the federal government is encouraged, as is consideration of the efforts of Ohio and other Great Lakes states and countries, as well as any agreements between those states and countries and Ohio.  OLEC must also publish a Lake Erie Protection and Restoration Strategy that describes the commission’s goals and its planned uses for the Lake Erie Protection Fund.  Demonstration projects and cooperative research are now acceptable uses of the fund, in addition to the previously established use of data gathering.

S.B. 2 enhances coordination between OLEC and the Great Lakes Protection Fund (GLPF) board by bringing two members of the GLPF’s board onto OLEC’s board, which currently consists of the directors of Ohio’s EPA, Department of Natural Resources, Department of Health, Department of Agriculture, Department of Transportation and Department of Development, along with five additional members appointed by the governor and approved by the Senate.  S.B. 2 requires the Governor to select the two GLPF board members who will serve on the OLEC board.

Changes in S.B. 2 also call for OLEC to develop public education and outreach programs about their work and issues facing Lake Erie and to expand fundraising efforts to support their programs—namely through the promotion of the sale of Lake Erie license plates.  A number of provisions regard the disposal of construction and demolition debris and dredging in Lake Erie.

The revisions in S.B. 2 are likely to better equip OLEC to carry out strategies for improving Lake Erie’s water quality.  Most notably, the new law will shift some of OLEC’s focus to combating water quality problems associated with nutrient pollution, a change that will surely affect Ohio agriculture.

S.B. 2 is available here in its entirety.  Refer to the first four pages of the bill for the revisions to OLEC.   More information about OLEC is here.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Environmental

Ohio’s Western Basin of Lake Erie will not be listed as ‘impaired’

EPA reaches decision on Ohio’s list of impaired waters

Written by Ellen Essman, Law Fellow, OSU Agricultural & Resource Law Program

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has finally rendered a decision on Ohio’s list of impaired waters following several months of delay and two lawsuits filed to compel the EPA to make a decision. (For a background on impaired waters and the two lawsuits, check out our previous blog posts here and here.)   On May 19, 2017, the EPA decided to accept the Ohio EPA’s proposed list of impaired waters for the State of Ohio.  Ohio’s list does not include the open waters in the Western Basin of Lake Erie.   However, the State of Michigan’s list of impaired waters previously approved by the EPA does include the open waters in its portion of the Western Basin of Lake Erie.

The EPA explained that the agency deferred to Ohio’s judgment not to include the open waters of the Western Basin of Lake Erie on the impaired waters list.  “EPA recognizes the State’s ongoing efforts to control nutrient pollution in the Western Basin of Lake Erie,” stated Chris Korleski, EPA’s Region 5 Water Division Director and previously Ohio’s EPA Director.   “EPA understands that Ohio EPA intends to evaluate options for developing objective criteria (e.g., microcystin or other metrics) for use in making decisions regarding the Western Basin for the 2018 list.  EPA expects the development of appropriate metrics, and is committed to working with you on them.”

For now, the EPA appears satisfied with Ohio’s plan for addressing nutrient reductions in Lake Erie’s Western Basin.  It is possible, however, that additional lawsuits could be filed against the EPA in order to reconcile Ohio and Michigan’s different designations of water in the same general area.

Read the EPA’s Approval of Ohio’s Submission of the State’s Integrated Report with Respect to Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act here.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Environmental, Uncategorized

Contentious Des Moines Water Works Litigation Comes to an End

Federal court dismisses Clean Water Act lawsuit against Iowa drainage districts

A federal district court has dismissed the controversial Des Moines Water Works lawsuit that put the agricultural community on edge for the past two years.  While the decision is favorable for agriculture, it didn’t resolve the question of whether the water utility could prove that nitrates draining from farm fields are harming the utility’s water sources.  The court’s dismissal prevents Des Moines Water Works from further asserting such claims.

The lawsuit by the Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) utility sued irrigation districts in three Iowa counties for allowing discharges of nitrates through drainage infrastructure and into the waterways from which the utility drew its water.  In addition to claiming that the discharges violate the federal Clean Water Act’s permitting requirements, DMWW also asserted nuisance, trespassing, negligence, takings without compensation, and due process and equal protection claims under Iowa law.   The utility sought monetary damages for the cost of removing nitrates from its water as well as an injunction ordering the drainage districts to stop the discharges with proper permits.

The federal district court first certified several questions of state law to the Iowa Supreme Court to clarify whether Iowa law provided immunity to the drainage districts for DMWW’s claims.   On January 27, 2017, the Iowa Supreme Court responded in the positive, explaining that Iowa drainage districts had been immune from damages and injunctive relief claims for over a century because drainage districts “have a limited, targeted role—to facilitate the drainage of farmland in order to make it more productive.”  The Iowa court also clarified that Iowa’s Constitution did not provide a basis for DMWW’s constitutional arguments.

Turning to the party’s claims in light of the Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling, the federal district court focused on the drainage district’s motion to dismiss DMWW’s claims based on the doctrine of redressability, which requires a showing that the alleged injury is likely to be redressed by a favorable decision.  The doctrine of redressability concludes that a plaintiff cannot have standing to sue and therefore cannot proceed in a case if the defendant doesn’t have the power to redress or remedy the injury even if the court granted the requested relief.

The drainage districts argued that they could not redress DMWW’s Clean Water Act claims because the districts had no power to regulate the nitrates flowing through the drainage systems.  The court agreed, stating that “DMWW seeks injunctive relief and the assessment of civil penalties against the drainage districts arising from alleged duties and powers that the districts simply do not possess under Iowa law.  DMWW may well have suffered an injury, but the drainage districts lack the ability to redress that injury.”

The federal district court also dismissed DMWW’s remaining claims against the drainage districts.  DMWW argued that the immunity given the drainage districts as described by the Iowa Supreme Court prevented DMWW’s remaining claims and thus violated the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection, Due Process, and Takings Clauses.  The federal district court found these contentions to be “entirely devoid of merit” and dismissed the state law claims of nuisance, trespassing, negligence, takings, due process and equal protection.  Because none of the counts against the drainage districts survived the court’s scrutiny, the court dismissed and closed the case.

What does the decision mean for agriculture?

The DMWW case was a futile but somewhat inventive attempt to allocate liability for nitrate pollution to the agricultural community.  “Unregulated agricultural discharges into Iowa’s rivers, lakes and streams continue to increase costs to our customers and damage Iowa’s water quality and environment,” said DMWW’s CEO Bill Stowe upon filing the lawsuit.  A public poll by the Des Moines Register soon after Stowe brought the DMWW lawsuit showed that 42% of the respondents agreed with him in believing that farmers should pay for nitrate removal from DMWW’s waters, while 32% thought those who lived in Des Moines should pay to remove the nitrates.

If the goal is to force agriculture to reduce nutrient run off or pay for the cost of removing nutrients from waterways, the DMWW case tells us that suing those who oversee agricultural drainage infrastructure projects is not the proper mechanism for accomplishing that goal.  So will the next strategy be to sue the farmers who use the nutrients and the drainage infrastructure?

One challenge in suing farmers directly for nutrient runoff, and the issue that was not addressed in DMWW, is whether nutrient runoff from farm fields carried through drainage systems constitutes a “point source” that requires regulation under the Clean Water Act, or whether nutrient runoff fits within the agricultural exemption under the Clean Water Act.  That law defines a “point source” as “any discernible, confined and discrete conveyance, including but not limited to any pipe, ditch, channel, tunnel, conduit, well, discrete fissure, container, rolling stock, concentrated animal feeding operation, or vessel or other floating craft, from which pollutants are or may be discharged,” but states that point sources do not include “agricultural storm water discharges and return flows from irrigated agriculture.”  What we still don’t know after two years of DMWW litigation is whether a court would put the transport of agricultural nutrients through drainage systems in the point source definition or would consider it an agricultural exemption from the point source definition.

A second challenge in an attempt to bring agricultural nutrients under the Clean Water Act is whether a plaintiff could prove the actual origin of a downstream nutrient—who applied the nutrient that ended up downstream?  DMWW sought to minimize this challenge by suing the drainage districts that oversee the entire region.   But DMWW still would have had to trace the nutrients to the region, a difficult task.

Meanwhile, the agricultural community expects that its voluntary efforts to reduce nitrate and phosphorus runoff from farm fields will positively impact water quality and reduce the possibility of more litigation like the DMWW case.   A multitude of voluntary efforts are underway, such as Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy and the flourish of cover crops in the Western Lake Erie Basin.  Ohio has also added a regulatory approach that requires farmers to engage in fertilizer application training.   Let’s hope these initiatives will reduce nutrient impacts before another party is willing to point its finger and agriculture and pursue a lawsuit like DMWW.

Read the federal district court’s decision in DMWW here.  Our previous post on DMWW is available here.

Leave a comment

Filed under Environmental, Uncategorized