By Nancy Allen
Farmers’ mistrust and misconceptions about the Grand Lake St. Marys Watershed Project is keeping the project from advancing, watershed coordinator Heather Buck said on Wednesday.
And actions by some members within the project’s ranks who gather water quality data have angered farmers by trespassing on farmers’ land and scrutinizing their agricultural practices, another watershed official said.
Buck vented her frustration during a functional review conducted by officials from the Ohio EPA, OSU Extension and ODNR’s Division of Soil and Water Conservation. Also at the review were members of the watershed project’s joint board of supervisors, which guides the project.
The review was held to determine the status of the watershed project and the watershed management plan Buck is working on. The state officials help guide Ohio’s 40 watershed coordinators. This is the third time the project has been reviewed.
Buck said there is a misconception in the agricultural community that she is with the EPA and out to get them in trouble for polluting. Buck said she does not know what to do about it.
“I’ve been here almost three years and I’m still trying to get over that mistrust,” Buck said. “We’re getting so caught up in who’s right and who’s wrong that we’re not moving forward ... That’s what I think is holding us back.”
Mercer County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) administrator Nikki Hawk agreed.
“She was dealt a raw deal when she came into this office because the previous coordinator was not the best in public relations,” Hawk said. “It’s hard to get that perception erased.”
Buck is employed by the SWCD and has no enforcement authority over pollution issues. Her job is to educate the public about water quality issues, secure grant funding that residents can use to implement best management practices to improve water quality in the watershed area and in the lake the watershed area drains into.
All but one of the cost-share conservation programs currently available through the watershed project are targeted at farmers because 85 percent of the watershed’s land usage is agricultural. All of the programs are voluntary.
Joint board member Leroy Johnsman, a retired farmer, said he has spoken with farmers who have a negative perception of the watershed project. Some farmers also codege that volunteer water quality monitors are targeting individual producers and have trespassed on their land to take water samples from ditches on or near their farmland, Johnsman said.
“I get comments from farmers and they’re pretty provoked,” Johnsman said. “How would you like to have someone looking in your tiles and checking on you? ... Once you get the people not on your side, that’s a problem.”
Buck said her best weapon against misconceptions and mistrust is to keep educating the agriculture community about her job and the watershed project. Buck said she has hopes the project can get past the mistrust.
“I think it’s just going to take a lot of education and continuing to talk to more and more people and hopefully over time it will be okay,” she said.
Buck also said she would like more feedback and participation from the joint board and advisory board on the watershed management plan and said she did not think the joint board realized how important the plan is. The advisory board is a larger group made up of various stakeholders from throughout the watershed.
Buck has been working on the 200-plus page plan since January 2002. The document is a long-range plan with goals and methods on how to improve the water quality in the 13,500-acre lake and in the 71,862-acre watershed area that drains into the lake. Having an endorsed watershed management plan is crucial to obtaining various grants that will pay watershed stakeholders to implement conservation practices to clean up the watershed.
Water quality testing done by Ohio EPA officials in 1999 determined that the Wabash River and Grand Lake St. Marys watersheds are the two most degraded in the state. The Grand Lake St. Marys Watershed is part of the much larger Wabash River Watershed, because rainwater overflow from the lake enters the Wabash River via Beaver Creek.
During the regular joint board meeting prior to the functional review, board members:
¥ Approved paying Franklin Township trustees $1,750 in Ohio EPA 319 grant funds for a sign designating a public nature preserve in Franklin Township on Karafit Road between Cottonwood Road and Ohio 219. The watershed project has promised to provide $15,750 in Ohio EPA 319 funds to construct an additional 2.25 acres of wetlands in the area, which contains a walking trail and parking lot that was paid for with a grant Franklin Township received.
¥ Approved paying 10 watershed residents in Mercer County a total of $750 to have their septic tanks pumped out and inspected through the watershed project’s septic tank pumping and inspection program.
¥ Approved an application for $2,250 in state cost share funds for a Mercer County dairy farmer to install tile and a pump to divert milk house waste into a concrete manure pit on his farm.