So I am reading an article in OneEarth, which is a publication of one of the environmental groups. The pretext is the issues with the movement of hog farm operations into Iowa and the problems it is causing. They note that the state has cut the regulatory enforcement budget and the number of inspectors while more incidents of contaminated water are found. The contamination threatens the raw water supply of downstream water utilities which must do more treatment and monitoring. Sorry, I had to giggle because I have heard this story before.
Going back about decade many will recall the “pfiesteria hysteria” as it was called in North Carolina. The issue was that the Department of Environmental Management had found fish kills where the fish had these weird sores on their bodies, and then a number of people were diagnosed as being infected with the same condition, some of whom died. The cause was this pfiesteria, which is a flesh-eating organism that enters the nervous system. Crazy is one of the side effects but it mostly leads to death. DEM determined that the organism thrived in waters with significant loading from nutrients that they could trace to….. wait for it…. hog farms!!
That was not the first time hog farms were implicated in water quality issues, but due to the significant, political influence of the industry, the transgressions were largely ignored due to a lack of enforcement personnel. Actually when I was in North Carolina we had a hog farm upstream of our wastewater plant. Periodically the DEM would test the waters downstream of our plant and find bacteria counts to high and they would want to tag us for the violation. But we never had any indication of violations at our plant (which we tested daily and reported). You can’t “make” nutrients appear out of thin air – they come from somewhere. We told DEM that it was a hog farm that periodically dumped the manure pit n the river when it got full. No treatment was going on. Then hog farms exploded in North Carolina which led the pfiesteria event. Finally the State decided enough was enough and imposed a lot of regulations on hog farms which magically …. moved to Iowa where there are no regulations in place. I guess there is nothing like a good crisis that kills a few people to get past the political influence of the lobbyists (unless you are the NRA).
But here’s the problem for Iowa, which is what North Carolina found. The regulations actually are in place. The Clean Water Act prohibits the contribution of pollutants that will impair the quality of water bodies. Clearly hog farm effluent clearly falls into this category, but the historical focus of the Clean water Act has been on wastewater treatment plants, and lately stormwater, but not agriculture, which is largely exempted in many, rural states. Yet agriculture is and has always been a major contributor to water quality degradation in watershed for two reasons. First they disturb the earth by plowing and planting, so rainfall leads to runoff of material (silt) into streams. With that runoff is herbicides, pesticides, fertilizer (nutrients), and of course in animal husbandry or CAFO operations, bacteria and other pathogens. Do not forget that the two most significant examples of water quality impacts on water utilities, Milwaukee and Walkerton, were both agricultural runoff problems.
Agricultural runoff impacts the downstream users which are typically developed areas which use the streams for water supply. So agricultural practices move land based contaminants to the utility intake, which means more treatment cost to customers. Sometimes these contaminants are a significant health risk. It took a significant incident for North Carolina to act. The question is what will it take for Iowa to act, and once they do where do the hog farms go next?
What needs to happen is that the hog farms develop the treatment systems needed to clean up their act. It would be great for them to pay the cost but history says they won’t. So maybe the political leadership needs to participate in that solution to maintain the employment base, and maybe utilities and other source water protection agencies, and there are many of them like the US Water Endowment, can help as well. Politicians want jobs, while ratepayers do not want to pay all the costs. A collaborative solution seems reasonable, so we will see what Iowa comes up with.