The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency is proposing restrictions on phosphorus and nitrogen amounts in state waterways. Ohio would be only the third state to enact such restrictions, joining Florida and Wisconsin.
Qualitative vs. Quantitative Assessments
Excessive phosphorus and nitrogen can lead to algae outbreaks. Environmental activists have recently pushed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state environmental protection agencies to abandon qualitative assessments of bodies of water and instead impose strict numeric limits regardless of whether algae outbreaks are reported.
Costly Numeric Restrictions
The two main sources of phosphorus and nitrogen in Ohio waterways are farming and sewage. Numeric nutrient restrictions will thus impose substantial new costs on farmers and municipal budgets. When the U.S. EPA proposed similar restrictions in Florida in 2011, the state’s Department of Agriculture estimated the restrictions would cost the farming sector between $800 million and $1.6 billion every year. Other studies estimated annual costs as high as $21 billion per year.
The proposed restrictions will unnecessarily punish Ohio agriculture, says analyst Mary McCleary, vice president of policy at Opportunity Ohio.
“While there is no denying algae is a problem in parts of the state, making farmers responsible for the amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen in waterways is an unfair solution. Given the nature of streams and rivers, it seems like it could be very difficult to determine where the chemicals are originating,” McCleary said.
“Through these proposed regulations, unelected bureaucrats could effectively put Ohio farms out of business or reduce their productivity, thereby also reducing the value of their land. These regulations will only further stifle job growth and economic recovery in Ohio,” McCleary added.
Robert Alt, president of the Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions, noted many environmental activists are constantly looking for reasons to impose restrictions on people and economic activity.
“There is a regrettable tendency among some environmentalists to see a problem and want to ‘do something’ about it without adequately taking into account whether that ‘something’ will address the problem in a meaningful way—as opposed to making an inconsequential dent—or whether it will have severe negative effects on people’s livelihoods,” said Alt.
Robert Sanchez, director of policy at the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee, Florida, warns numeric restrictions may not be rooted in sound science.
“As often occurs, environmental regulators arguably have set unrealistic standards not rooted in sound science or common sense. Regarding runoff from sugarcane fields near Lake Okeechobee, for instance, farmers complain that they’re told the runoff is supposed to be ‘cleaner than rainwater,'” Sanchez reported.
Scott Manley, vice president of government relations at Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, reported similar negative impacts of Wisconsin’s numeric standards.
“The phosphorus standards have done little more than create confusion, uncertainty, litigation, and higher costs for consumers,” Manley said.
D. Brady Nelson ([email protected]) is a Milwaukee-based economist.