Joint hearing reviews initial stages of voluntary phosphorus reduction program
State Rep. Julie Alexander, chair of the House Agriculture Committee, today called on the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) to run a new program efficiently to help farmers reduce phosphorus runoff and limit harmful algae growth in Lake Erie.
The committee on Tuesday held a joint hearing with the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture and Rural Development and Natural Resources. MDARD Director Gary McDowell testified on the implementation of the $25 million Agricultural Nutrient Best Management Voluntary Practices Program created in the bipartisan budget in September.
“Algae blooms have reduced water quality and interfered with the ecosystem in Lake Erie,” said Alexander, of Hanover. “For many years, Michigan farmers have cultivated our food and fiber while taking proactive steps to conserve our environment, and new one-time funding could help them to further improve their agricultural practices to reduce phosphorus runoff. These funds can help Michigan remain a national leader in agricultural stewardship. However, our government has a duty to use taxpayer dollars wisely. The administration must prepare a thorough plan, involving stakeholders, to spend these resources and achieve results in a transparent manner.”
The budget authorized a voluntary program to improve water quality in the Western Lake Erie Basin, including reducing phosphorus transport from farm fields. The plan allows grants, cost sharing and other incentives to assist farmers as they implement additional conservation practices. MDARD may also use resources for technical support, soil or water testing, and education outreach and training.
McDowell said the state’s long-term goal is to reduce phosphorus going into Lake Erie to 40% of 2008 levels by 2025. He testified that the new pilot program will focus on reducing agricultural sources of phosphorus in three counties and 12 watersheds in Southeast Michigan over the course of five years.
Alexander said while she appreciates the information the director provided, it is clear the department needs to plan more specific details for how funds will be spent and how success will be measured. By April 1, MDARD is required by law to submit a public report to the Legislature summarizing the implementation of the program.
“As the questions from committee members demonstrated, the Legislature is taking this issue seriously,” Alexander said. “We will continue monitoring the program and holding the department accountable to the people of our state, including the farmers the program will assist.”
Alexander thanked subcommittee Chair Sue Allor for holding the joint hearing. “Like me, Chair Allor wants this new agricultural program to serve our state well, and I am grateful for her partnership on this oversight effort,” Alexander said. “I look forward to learning more from the department in the months ahead.”