Featuring the work of Carolyn C. Jolly, Law Fellow, National Agricultural Law Center
OSU’s Agricultural & Resource Law Program is fortunate to be a partner with the National Agricultural Law Center, which includes working with the Center’s Law Fellows—students currently studying law in different law schools across the country. Carolyn C. Jolly is one of our current Law Fellows, and she has an interest in environmental laws that affect agriculture. Carolyn is the author of today’s blog. She has assembled a harvest of environmental updates affecting agriculture that include approval of Ohio EPA’s phosphorus TMDL, a practical ESA guide for producers, EPA’s commitment to adhering to its ESA requirements, and an update on participation by agricultural producers in voluntary carbon markets.
EPA Approves Ohio’s Maumee Watershed Nutrient Total Maximum Daily Load
In 2014, phosphorous runoff from farms in the western basin of Lake Erie caused an algal bloom. Harmful algal blooms produce toxins that impair drinking water, affect aquatic life, and hinder recreational use. Coming up with a solution to reduce the phosphorus runoff has been contentious. In 2019, Toledo voters passed a bill that would allow citizens to sue farmers on behalf of the lake. This measure was held to be unconstitutional, but it could have greatly impacted the ability of farmers and producers to continue their operations. To address specific pollutants, the Clean Water Act requires states to develop Total Maximum Dailey Loads (TMDL). Environmental interests and local governments in Ohio legally challenged both the Ohio EPA and U.S. EPA to establish a TMDL for the western Lake Erie Basin. In June of 2023, the Ohio EPA did submit a proposed TMDL for to the EPA and it was approved in September. The aim of the TMDL is to reduce phosphorus runoff in the Maumee Watershed.
Here are some of the approaches for agricultural areas the EPA included in the TMDL:
- Soil testing and nutrient management planning efforts (e.g., Voluntary Nutrient Management Plans via H2Ohio funding)
- Variable rate fertilization and subsurface placement of fertilizer (e.g., following the ‘4 R’s’ of nutrient management: using the right nutrient at the right rate and right time in the right place)
- Manure incorporation (mixing manure into soils or placing the manure below the soil surface)
- Conservation crop rotation and cover crops (e.g., improving soil health, increasing soil organic matter, improving soil moisture storage capacity, etc.)
Agricultural Water Quantity Management
- Drainage water management (e.g., management of discharge from agricultural tile drainage lines to store water in the water table beneath fields and reduce discharge to surface waters)
- Edge-of-field buffers (e.g., planting in riparian areas to increase water storage and decrease nutrient and sediment inputs, Great Lakes Restoration Initiative)
- Two-stage ditch deployment (e.g., modifying the profile of stream channel bottoms by constructing a bench/floodplain adjacent to the existing stream channel to slow water flow during high flow events and trap nutrients and sediment)
- Wetland restoration and preservation (e.g., the restoration/protection of existing wetlands are beneficial for storing water and nutrients on the landscape, Environmental Quality Incentives Program; Western Lake Erie Basin Project - Ohio)
Read the Final TMDL on the Ohio EPA’s webpage for the Maumee Watershed.
Agricultural Producers Now have a Practical Guide to the Endangered Species Act
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is intended to protect endangered and threatened species and thus has an impact on agriculture and land use across the country. However, being such a wide-ranging piece of legislation, it can be difficult to understand the law and its full impact on agriculture. Brigit Rollins, an attorney with our partner, the National Agricultural Law Center, set out to answer how and why the ESA affects agriculture and land use by creating the Endangered Species Act Manual: A Practical Guide to the ESA for Agricultural Producers. It is a concise guide that describes the history of the ESA, influential case law, regulatory changes, and specifics of the ESA’s impact on agriculture. Additionally, it is meant to be a living document that will be updated with current changes and issues.
EPA on Balancing ESA Requirements and Responsible Pesticide Use
When registering new uses for pesticides and reviewing already registered uses, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is required to consult the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to ensure that the use follows ESA standards. This can be a lengthy process and the EPA has complied with the process in less than 5% of its actions. This noncompliance has resulted in substantial litigation. To address these issues, EPA issued its ESA Workplan. EPA actions in the workplan include developing mitigation measures for particularly vulnerable species, developing and implementing strategies to identity mitigation measures for the different classes of pesticides, completion of ESA work for eight organophosphates and four rodenticides, and hosting a workshop with stakeholders to explore other methods of offsetting pesticide impacts. EPA also released its Draft Herbicide Strategy for comment and the Rodenticide, Insecticide, and Fungicide Strategies are under development. The EPA has also released its ESA guidance for future registrations.
Agricultural Producer Participation in Carbon Markets
To mitigate climate change, Congress passed the Growing Climate Solutions Act (GCSA) to improve access to carbon markets for agricultural producers. In accordance with the law’s requirements, the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) released A General Assessment of the Role of Agriculture and Forestry in the U.S. Carbon Markets on October 23, 2023. The report addresses participation by agricultural producers in the carbon market, barriers to and concerns or participation, and ways to improve producer participation. The report notes that even though producers are aware of the carbon market, voluntary participation has been low. According to the report, “Producers cite the concerns about the return on investment, upfront costs, data collection burdens, compensation for pre-existing practices, permanence requirements, issues of scale, and confusion about carbon markets and programs as key factors in their evaluation into whether to participate in a carbon project.” The USDA concludes that to reduce barriers to participation, strategies need to be implemented to “reduce transaction costs, minimize record-keeping burdens, address early-adopter and permanence requirement concerns, and address barriers related to project scale.” The report also details the USDA’s role in improving participation through outreach and education, offering grants and partnerships, supporting carbon market infrastructure, and investing in measurement, monitoring, reporting, and verification of carbon credit procedures.
It was a long time coming, but the Ohio EPA has presented a final Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) report for the Western Basin of Lake Erie to the U.S. EPA. The agency submitted the “Maumee Watershed Nutrient TMDL ” report on June 30, 2023. This was the exact deadline agreed to in the Consent Decree that settled litigation against the U.S. EPA and Ohio EPA over the lack of a TMDL for Lake Erie’s Western Basin.
What is a TMDL?
A TMDL provides a framework for future decisions that affect water quality in waters designated as “impaired waters” that fail to meet water quality standards. The Ohio EPA declared Western Lake Erie waters as “impaired” in 2018, and the TMDL is the plan for addressing shoreline and open water impairments in the basin. According to the Ohio EPA, the TMDL report “identifies the links between the waterbody use impairment, sources of impairment, and the pollutant load reductions needed to meet water quality standards.”
How will it affect Ohio agriculture?
A major source of the impairment in the Lake Erie Western Basin is cyanobacterial harmful algal blooms caused by high phosphorus loads. The report identifies many sources of phosphorus that contribute to the impairment, with the largest component being “nonpoint” sources that include row crop commercial fertilizers and manures. “Point” sources of phosphorous sources include water treatment facilities; stormwater discharges; and home sewage treatment systems. The TMDL calls for phosphorus load reductions in the Maumee watershed to remedy the lake’s impairment. Agriculture would be affected by increased emphasis on management practices for agricultural fertilizers, manures, soils, and drainage.
How does the TMDL address phosphorus reductions?
The TMDL embraces an “adaptive management” approach that involves developing strategies, establishing milestones, implementing strategies, monitoring environmental responses, evaluating progress, and adjusting strategies. For row crops, the report focuses on management practices such as soil testing and developing a nutrient management plan. It proposes other agricultural phosphorous reductions from soil erosion management, increasing cropping diversity through rotations and cover crops, reductions of phosphorus applications, edge-of-field management, two-stage ditch designs, and controlled drainage. The report points out that many of the proposed actions have already been underway on farms in the watershed for over a decade, and monitoring, evaluations, and adjustment strategies will continue the progress made to-date. Figure 50 in the report, below, highlights phosphorous reduction strategies.
What happens next?
The U.S. EPA now must review the TMDL and decide whether to approve or disapprove the report. It has up to 90 days to do so, according to the Consent Decree. If the U.S. EPA does not approve the TMDL report, it must then prepare a TMDL for the Western Basin.
How to learn more
Read the Maumee Watershed Nutrient TMDL on the Ohio EPA website, which also includes a fact sheet, appendices, and a summary of responses to public comments on the draft TMDL.
What is the key to resolving disagreements over water quality issues in Lake Erie? Cooperation, according to the federal court judge overseeing a legal battle over Lake Erie. The judge, U.S. District Judge James G. Carr, recently approved a plan that is the result of cooperation between the U.S. EPA, State of Ohio, Lucas County Commissioners, and the Environmental Law & Policy Center. For almost six years, the parties have been in a legal battle over how to deal with water quality in Western Lake Erie. But at the encouragement of the court, the parties developed and agreed to a Consent Decree to settle the case. Judge Carr approved the Consent Decree on May 4, 2023. Time will soon tell if the cooperation approach will satisfy the parties holding interests in Lake Erie’s water quality.
What led to the Consent Decree?
In the midst of growing concerns about harmful algal blooms and water quality in Western Lake Erie, the Environmental Law & Policy Center and Lucas County Commissioners filed a lawsuit against the U.S. EPA, claiming that the federal agency had failed its obligations to oversee Ohio’s duties to meet water quality standards under the Clean Water Act (CWA). The CWA requires states to identify waters that do not meet water quality standards and designate them as “impaired waters.” Once it lists a water as impaired, the state must also rank which waters have the highest need for determining Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) that set maximum amounts of pollutants that may enter the water. TMDLs provide a framework for future decisions that affect water quality in the impaired water.
Following a separate lawsuit that challenged Ohio EPA’s designation of some but not all waters in Western Lake Erie as impaired, Ohio EPA assigned impaired water status to all Western Lake Erie waters by 2018. But Ohio identified the waters as a “low” TMDL priority and stated that it would address water quality the western basin through “alternative measures” rather than preparation of a TMDL. The U.S. EPA, charged with reviewing state actions for compliance with the CWA, approved Ohio’s designation. The Environmental Law & Policy Center and the Lucas County Board of Commissioners each filed lawsuits against the U.S. EPA for approving Ohio’s approach, and the two lawsuits were consolidated into the current case. The State of Ohio, not an original party to the litigation, received the court’s permission to intervene as a defendant in the lawsuit.
Several years and many motions and hearings later, Judge Carr admonished both sides of the lawsuit for dragging the matter out in court and leaving Lake Erie’s water quality problem “largely unattended.” In 2021, before considering separate summary judgment motions the parties had made, the Judge pointed out that no matter his decision, the other party would appeal it and continue the litigation and that “nothing is going to get done.” Resolving the problems in Lake Erie would only happen if the U.S. EPA, the plaintiffs, and the State of Ohio would “work cooperatively towards accomplishing a meaningful outcome and resolution,” Judge Carr stated. His resolution on the summary judgment motions would only “kick the can down the road for another two years, at least...” A better solution, said Judge Carr, would be for the parties to resolve the matter through settlement.
With the court’s oversight, the parties engaged in settlement negotiations for nearly two years. They reached an agreement in 2022. As required by law, the U.S. EPA filed the proposed agreement, or Consent Decree, in the Federal Register last November and sought public comments to the proposal. The parties then filed a joint motion to the court, asking Judge Carr to approve the proposed Consent Decree.
The Consent Decree
The Consent Decree outlines a timeline Ohio EPA must follow to create a TMDL designed to address nutrient and algae impairments for drinking water, aquatic life, and recreational uses by establishing pollutant limits for all Western Lake Erie waters. The agreement requires the plaintiffs to allow additional time for the U.S. EPA to step in and prepare a TMDL if Ohio fails in its efforts to do so. The Consent Decree also sets up a status report schedule and a dispute resolution process and awards attorney fees and costs to the Plaintiffs. The agreement does not address the legal sufficiency of the TMDL, and the plaintiffs still hold the right to challenge the legal sufficiency or adequacy of the TMDL. The Consent Decree will end upon performance of all obligations by all parties.
The following summarizes the steps of the agreed upon TMDL schedule.
Approval of the Consent Decree
Judge Carr’s role in reviewing the proposed agreement was to determine if it is “fair, adequate, and reasonable, as well as consistent with the public interest.” The parties’ submitted a joint motion in support of the Consent Decree that laid out their arguments as follows:
- The proposed agreement is fair because it was negotiated at length, in good faith, and in recognition of the strengths and weaknesses of each side.
- Because the proposed agreement addresses Defendant’s alleged violations by providing a schedule for developing a TMDL for Western Lake Erie, it is adequate and reasonable.
- The Consent Decree is in the public interest and furthers the goals of the Clean Water Act by providing for the timely development of a TMDL that will help “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters” as intended by the Act. It also allows continued citizen rights to participate in the TMDL, does not alter existing regulations for TMDLs, and avoids significant time and expenses associated with ongoing litigation.
Judge Carr agreed with the parties’ arguments and approved the Consent Decree. In doing so, he praised the work of U.S. District Judge Polster, who oversaw the settlement negotiations, the lawyers for each party, and the State of Ohio. “Though the work that today’s agreement brings is but a first step, it is a step that has to be taken. How many more steps lie ahead, and how long they will take, is beyond even guessing,” he stated. “But there’s reason to hope that, in time, the Maumee River will no longer display, as it has for countless summers, a loathsome foul and slimy green surface as it flows through Toledo on its constant and irresistible course on to Lake Erie’s Western Basin.”
Implementation of the Consent Decree schedule is already underway. The Ohio EPA issued a draft TMDL or “Nutrient Water Quality Improvement Plan for the Maumee River Watershed” on December 30, 2022, and is currently reviewing comments made during the public comment period that ended on March 8, 2023. The agency appears to be on schedule for meeting the June 30 deadline for submitting the TMDL to the U.S. EPA for its review. Information on the Draft TMDL is available at https://epa.ohio.gov/divisions-and-offices/surface-water/reports-data/maumee-river-watershed.
But is continued cooperation on the TMDL for Western Lake Erie possible? Both the plaintiffs in this case submitted comments on the draft TMDL, and both raised concerns about its “shortcomings.”
“The TMDL just proposes to keep doing the same things that have already failed, focused on voluntary measures and incentive payments to producers,” stated the Environmental Law & Policy Center in its comments, available at https://elpc.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/ELPC-Maumee-TMDL-comments-FINAL.pdf.
“It is critical that the draft TMDL not lack the necessary steps to reduce agriculture phosphorous runoff into Lake Erie and place limits on dissolved reactive phosphorous,” said Lucas County Commissioner Wozniak in comments summarized at https://co.lucas.oh.us/CivicAlerts.aspx?AID=1750. “We shouldn’t be fooled into settling for half measures and voluntary practices any longer. We are talking about the health of our most valuable resource, and we must have a meaningful TMDL to protect it.”
While the spirit of cooperation encouraged by Judge James G. Carr is at play in the development of a TMDL for Western Lake Erie, whether that spirit will thrive in the debate over the content and future implementation of the TMDL is a critical question. In the words of Judge Carr, how many more steps lie ahead, and how long they will take, is beyond even guessing. Let’s hope that more litigation isn’t one of those steps.
The Consent Decree is available through this link.
Judge Carr's Order on the Consent Decree is at this link.
We’ve quickly reached the end of January, and several of the legal issues I’ve talked about in OSU’s “Agricultural Outlook” meetings have surfaced this month. If the current pace keeps up, 2022 promises to be a busy year for agricultural law. Here’s a review of three legal issues I predict we’ll see that have already begun to emerge in 2022.
Water, water. From defining WOTUS to addressing Lake Erie water quality, water law will continue to be everywhere this year. The U.S. Supreme Court just announced on January 24 that it will hear the well-known case of Sackett v EPA to review whether the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals used the proper test to determine whether wetlands are “waters of the United States” (WOTUS). The case is one example of the ongoing push-pull in the WOTUS definition, which establishes waters that are subject to the federal Clean Water Act. The Biden administration proposed a new WOTUS rule last December that would replace the Trump-era rule, and comments remain open on that definition until February 7. Ohio has wrangled with its own water issues, particularly with agricultural nutrient impacts on water quality. We’ll see this year if the state will continue to rely on H2Ohio and similar incentive-based programs and whether the Ohio EPA will face additional litigation over its development of a Total Maximum Daily Load for Lake Erie.
Pesticide challenges. The EPA announced a new policy on January 11 to more closely evaluate potential effects of pesticide active ingredients on endangered species and critical habitats. That was the same day the agency re-registered Enlist One and Enlist Duo pesticides, but with new label restrictions and prohibited use in hundreds of counties across the U.S., including a dozen Ohio counties. An EPA report documenting dicamba damage in 2021 could form the basis for yet another lawsuit this year demanding that EPA vacate dicamba’s registration. Meanwhile, we await a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on whether it will review Hardeman v. Monsanto, one of dozens of cases awarding damages against Monsanto (now Bayer) for personal injury harms caused by glyphosate.
Opposition to livestock production practices. Ohio pork producers watching California’s Proposition 12 will be happy with a recent California court decision prohibiting enforcement of one part of the law that went into effect on January 1. The provision requires any pork and eggs sold in the state to be from breeding pigs and laying hens that are not raised in a “cruel manner,” meaning that the animals have a certain amount of usable pen space. The California court agreed with grocers and other retailers that the law could not be enforced on sales of pork meat because the state hasn’t yet finalized its regulations. The law could be subject to further scrutiny from a higher court. Several agricultural organizations have unsuccessfully challenged the law as a violation of the Constitution’s Commerce Clause, but one of those cases currently awaits a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court on whether it will review the case. Other livestock production issues we’ll see this year include continued battles over Right to Farm laws that limit nuisance lawsuits against farms, and challenges to “ag gag” laws that aim to prevent or punish undercover investigations on farms.
There’s more to come. Watch for more of our predictions on what 2022 may bring to the agricultural law arena in upcoming posts. Or drop into one of our Agricultural Outlook and Policy meetings to hear my Ag Law Outlook. As quickly as the year is moving, we’ll soon know how many of those predictions are correct.