New rules for farmers aimed at reducing the toxic algae in Lake Erie won unanimous approval from the Legislature on Wednesday and were headed to the governor for his expected signature.
The wide-ranging bill would stop farmers in northwestern Ohio from spreading manure on frozen and rain-soaked fields. It also would bring an end to the dumping of dredged sediment in the lake within five years. Both are thought to be contributing to the growth of algae in the lake.
The measure would be the first passed in an effort to slow the spread of the algae since August, when a toxin contaminated the drinking water for more than 400,000 people in northwestern Ohio and southeastern Michigan.
Jim Zehringer, the state's natural resources director, said the legislation gives Ohio the ability "to get bad actors into compliance" while working with those farmers who need assistance with the rules.
"Ohio's fight against algae isn't over, but these reforms will certainly help," Zehringer said in a written statement.
Senate President Keith Faber told reporters at a Statehouse news conference that the bill would help provide Ohioans access to "clean water, not green water." At the same time, he said the rules allow the agriculture industry to remain viable.
"But viability should not be confused with a lack of environmental stewardship," added Faber, a Celina Republican. "Excessive use of chemical fertilizers or organic fertilizers is unacceptable, and this bill will make meaningful changes to that process."
The bill's sponsors said they did not foresee any large hurdles in implementing the regulations, which would have to go through further rule-making review. They anticipated that farmers would have more details on the new standards by December.
"I think the statute is pretty clear as to what's expected," said Sen. Randy Gardner, a Bowling Green Republican. He said the proposal incorporates many best practices already in place for farmers.
Gardner said he expected further discussion over how to enhance the bill's impact during debate over the state's two-year budget. Ideas could include more support for soil testing, tributary monitoring and conservation measures.
He also said he'd like to see a regional conference of environmental groups and local leaders to help take a more comprehensive approach to addressing algae problems.
"It's not all about Ohio," Gardner told reporters. "It's about Indiana and Michigan and Ontario — at least those states."
Environmental groups and the Ohio Farm Bureau support the bill.