H2Ohio: A Killer Plan or a False Hope?

By Angela Rustandi*

Algae blooms are Ohio’s worst enemy. It has been plaguing Ohio since the 1960s to the point that people who live in Toledo have not been able to drink, cook, or take a bath for three days in 2014.[i] Pets, especially dogs, have also died from drinking and swimming in water contaminated by algae blooms.[ii] Algae blooms are caused by excessive phosphorus loading dumped directly to Lake Erie or its tributaries by both point-source and non-point source pollution.[iii]

Point-sources such as outflows from wastewater treatment plans and storm sewers was the main cause of algae blooms in the 1960s.[iv] Sets of phosphorus reduction targets and improvements in sewage treatment have dramatically reduced phosphorus loadings.[v] Within the last decade, however, the blooms have returned, caused by non-point source from fertilizer-rich runoff from agricultural fields.[vi]

Ohio Governor DeWine is committed to fight Lake Erie algae blooms. He initiated a ten-year water quality plan, H2Ohio, to reduce algae blooms in Lake Erie. The H2Ohio plan is extensive and ambitious – from increased implementation of agricultural best management practices (BMP) to restoration of wetlands, to improvement of wastewater and water supply systems.[vii] A promise of substantial funding[viii] certainly makes this plan more appealing. Governor DeWine signed into law the H2Ohio Water Fund which will secure funding for H2Ohio for two years[ix] and a perpetual fund, House Bill 7, for H2Ohio, has passed the Ohio House of Representative and is in the Senate right now.[x]

Some people celebrate this plan, but others have doubts. On-the-ground projects, initiatives, partnerships, and research similar to H2Ohio have been done, yet algae bloom still persists.[xi] What makes the Governor think the H2Ohio plan will be any different? For one, this plan does have several things that other projects that have been done in the past don’t. It will develop a localized phosphorus target, individualized nutrient management plans, and a transparent evaluation data.[xii]

A nutrient management plan is a plan to manage the source, rate, form, timing, placement, and utilization of manure, fertilizer, and other nutrients in the soil and residues.[xiii] Every farmer has different practices of fertilizer and manure application and different practices result in different phosphorus loadings into Lake Erie.[xiv] An individualized nutrient management plan is a plan tailored to each farmer to identify which best practices will reduce the most phosphorus runoff and achieve the localized phosphorus target.[xv] An evaluation will help to measure progress and serve as a guidance for future revisions. The H2Ohio plan has incorporated several key components that can ensure successful implementation and reduce excessive phosphorus loadings.[xvi] 

However, one thing that the plan is missing is a mandatory program. The great solution described above is all voluntary. Economic incentives will be given for farmers who voluntarily adopt this plan. But economic incentives have been done a lot of times in the past before and none of them have substantially combat algae blooms.  Governor DeWine kept insisting that a mandatory BMPs program is not necessary right now.[xvii] A study in 2018 shows that the biggest barrier to increase voluntary adoption is hesitation from farmers that the proposed BMPs are feasible to implement or likely to be effective.[xviii] Farmers are hesitant that they can appropriately perform the practices and that the practices will effectively reduce phosphorus loadings.[xix] Hence, if Governor DeWine doesn’t want to mandate this plan, the voluntary program has to be designed as such that it can address those two efficacies issues.

Although mandatory program might be the most effective measure, it also has several hurdles, which may be the reasons Ohio Government is reluctant to adopt it. Farmers are disinclined to adopt practices that require a considerable amount of ‘management,’ especially one that is costly and require a behavioral change.[xx] Their disinclination can lead to noncompliance. Ohio Government can help for a smoother compliance by providing financial and technical assistances to farmers. H2Ohio has received funding for the next two years and a perpetual funding is underway. Government has the money to provide these assistances; it’s just a matter of willingness. Ohio Government has to show that the cost of noncompliance is more expensive than the cost of compliance.[xxi] Another way to reduce resistances from farmers is to give them an equal seat at the policy-making table,[xxii] thus creating a bottom-up mandatory program. Farmers will grow a sense of ownership to the plan and be more confident that they can implement the plan. A financial and technical assistance as well as involvement of farmers have shown positive outcome in nutrient management requirement in Delaware.[xxiii]

H2Ohio plan does look promising with its new and science-based features. Some people applaud this plan and are optimistic. Others think more robust policies are still necessary, especially if Ohio wants to achieve its commitment to reduce 40% of phosphorus by 2025. Ohio will have to step up their game and adopt a mandatory program if H2Ohio plan fails, again.
* Angela Rustandi is a Junior Editor on MJEAL. She can be reached via email at vrangela@umich.edu

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors only and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law or the University of Michigan.


[i] Alliance for The Great Lakes, Five Years Later: Lessons from The Toledo Water Crisis, Alliance for The Great Lakes (Nov. 14, 2019, 3:40 PM), https://greatlakes.org/2019/08/five-years-later-lessons-from-the-toledo-water-crisis/.

[ii] Christine Hauser, Algae Can Poison Your Dog, The New York Times (Nov. 14, 2019, 2.15 PM), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/12/us/blue-green-algae-dogs.html

[iii] Julia Mida Hinderer and Michael W. Murray, Feast and Famine in The Great Lakes, NWF, p. 6, October 2011.

[iv] Point-sources contributed 70% to algae blooms in 1960 and 1970. See: Robyn Wilson, et.al., Commentary: Achieving Phosphorus Reduction Targets for Lake Erie, Journal of Great Lakes Research 1, p. 2 (2018).

[v] Id., p. 2-3.

[vi] On average, runoff from nonpoint sources are estimated to be responsible for about 72% of the total phosphorus load entering Lake Erie each year. US Action Plan for Lake Erie, p. 7 (2018).

[vii] H2Ohio,H2Ohio (Nov. 5, 2019, 9:10 PM), http://h2.ohio.gov.

[viii] Approx.. $900 million funding for 10 years. See: H2Ohio Initiative to Protect State Water Quality Introduced, Mike DeWine Governor of Ohio, (Nov. 14, 2019, 4:00 PM), https://governor.ohio.gov/wps/portal/gov/governor/media/news-and-media/031419.

[ix] The Nature Conservancy, Clean Water Victory!, The Nature Conservancy (Nov. 13, 2019, 7:20 PM), https://www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/united-states/ohio/stories-in-ohio/h2ohio-water-fund/.

[x] The Ohio Legislature, House Bill 7, The Ohio Legislature, (No. 7, 2019, 11.15 AM), https://www.legislature.ohio.gov/legislation/legislation-summary?id=GA133-HB-7.

[xi] Some of the projects, inter alia, are: (1) Ohio Clean Lakes Initiative: an appropriation of$3.55 million and a collaboration with 350 farmers to implement Best Management Practices (BMP) to reduce nutrient runoff in the Western Lake Erie Basin; (2) Healthy Lake Erie Initiative: $10 million was appropriated to reduce the open lake placement of dredge material into Lake Erie; (3) National Water Quality Initiative: Ohio EPA help farmers implement conservation system; (4) Ohio Lake Erie Phosphorus Task Force: the task force issued a report to further analyze how nutrients are entering water systems and made recommendations for both private sector and public policy initiatives to reduce the amount of nutrient loading; (5) Ohio’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy: a comprehensive plan to manage point and non-point sources of nutrients and reduce their impact on Ohio’s surface water. See: Nutrient Management Initiatives in Ohio, Ohio EPA, Ohio DOA and Ohio DNR.

[xii] Governor DeWine Announces H2Ohio Water Quality Plan, H2Ohio (Nov. 14, 2019, 09.47 PM), http://h2.ohio.gov/governor-dewine-announces-h2ohio-water-quality-plan/.

[xiii] Nutrient Management Plan, United States Department of Agriculture (Dec. 18, 2019, 11.21 PM), https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=3&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwj1k5CK7sDmAhWUPM0KHbrmAWcQFjACegQIDBAH&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.nrcs.usda.gov%2FInternet%2FFSE_DOCUMENTS%2Fnrcs142p2_005347.doc&usg=AOvVaw1ZFQ3drqF6b0lgMhYEXqIL.

[xiv] See: D. B. Beegle, O. T. Carton, and J. S. Bailey, Nutrient Management Planning: Justification, Theory, Practice, J. Environ. Qual. Vol. 29, p. 72-75 (2000).

[xv] Id., H2Ohio, supra.

[xvi] . B. Beegle, O. T. Carton, and J. S. Bailey, supra, p. 76.

[xvii] H2Ohio, supra.

[xviii] Wilson, supra, at 5.

[xix] Id.

[xx] Michelle R. Perez, Regulating Farmer Nutrient Management: A Three-State Case Study on The Delmarva Peninsula, Journal of Environmental Quality, p. 411-412 (2015).

[xxi] Id., p. 413.

[xxii] Id.

[xxiii] See: Id.

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