View of a stream, brown with manure. Excess waste from a CAFO can create problems like this.
A stream in Iowa polluted by swine manure. (Photo: Dana W. Kolpin, U.S. Geological Survey, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In Wisconsin, farmers are worried for statewide water quality and public health after the dairy industry filed a lawsuit to eliminate the only protection that Wisconsin has against contamination from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Some CAFOs can produce as much waste as a small city, but without comparable waste management infrastructure, rural communities face health, economic, and environmental hazards.

The Wisconsin Dairy Alliance and Venture Dairy Cooperative sued the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in May, arguing that CAFOs should no longer have to apply for water pollution permits due to a discrepancy between Wisconsin state law and the federal Clean Water Act.

Currently, CAFOs in Wisconsin must obtain a Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (WPDES) permit before disposing of manure and waste. The lawsuit argues that the DNR exceeds their statutory authority by regulating CAFOs and their potential waste discharges rather than the actual amount of waste discharged. In July, the Wisconsin Farmers Union released a statement in opposition, saying that this lawsuit could eliminate the “primary source of environmental oversight of CAFOs in Wisconsin.”

Lots of Animals, Little Space

CAFOs, like the name concentrated animal feeding operation suggests, are livestock operations where a large number of animals are kept indoors, raised in confinement, and slaughtered. To be classified as a CAFO, an operation must have at least 1,000 animal units (700 milking cows, 1,000 beef cattle, 2,500 pigs, 55,000 turkeys, 82,000 laying hens, or 125,000 chickens). “I don’t know that people always understand or appreciate the size of some of these things,” said Adam Voskuil, lead agricultural attorney at Midwest Environmental Advocates (MEA) in an interview with the Deesmealz. CAFOs are an efficient and often economical way for farmers to raise livestock, but due to the large amount of animals kept indoors in a relatively small space, these operations produce a lot of concentrated waste.

Large cities are often cited as major culprits when it comes to waste and pollution, but a CAFO in a rural area can compete with even a midsize metropolis. “A dairy operation that has 1,200 cows produces the same amount of waste as a city with about 46-47,000 people,” said Zach Raff, in an interview with the Deesmealz. Raff, an economist at the United States Department of Agriculture, authored a 2021 study on CAFOs and surface water quality. “The difference,” he explained, “is that cities have wastewater treatment plants, where there are filtration systems and health measures put in place to make sure that contaminants aren’t reaching water bodies. That doesn’t happen at CAFOs.”

According to a report by the National Association of Local Boards of Health, CAFO manure contains plant nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, but it also contains pathogens like E. coli, growth hormones, antibiotics, chemicals added to the manure or used to clean equipment, animal blood, silage leachate from corn feed, and copper sulfate used in footbaths for cows.

Where Waste Ends Up

Manure has long been used as fertilizer, but manure from CAFOs is not beneficial.

“In Wisconsin, the manure is stored in liquid form, and liquid form is very very expensive to ship,” said Raff. “These operations aren’t shipping it out to get it where the land actually needs those nutrients, so they’re basically just spreading it right around where the operation is. The assimilative capacity of the soil – the ability for it to actually take in the nutrients and use them as fertilizer – it’s just been reached.”

Voskuil and Raff both said that these excess nutrients find their way from the soil to groundwater and surface water. The contaminants – nitrates and bacteria in particular – seep down to the groundwater. And when it rains, the contaminants run off directly into the surface water.

Rural Wisconsinites Face Particular Risks

This contamination of groundwater and surface water can have devastating effects on rural communities, and Wisconsinites in particular are at risk. “Wisconsin residents and communities rely on groundwater to a much higher level than most other states, and so groundwater contamination affects communities, particularly in rural areas. MEA receives calls regularly from folks around the state who are dealing with really dire circumstances as a result of these extractive industries,” Voskuil said.

Because of extreme bacterial and nitrate contamination from a CAFO in Kewaunee county, residents ran sinks and bathtubs and received brown water. “Those issues are not exclusive to Kewaunee County. They’re the ones that have received a lot of press about it,” Voskuil said. “But looking at it a bit more broadly, every year, the Wisconsin DNR has a Groundwater Coordinating Council (GCC) that puts out a state of the groundwater report. The GCC has noted that nitrate contamination in groundwater is increasing in severity and frequency across the state. About 90%, maybe a bit more of it, is caused by agriculture in the state.”

Nitrate contamination is tied to blue baby syndrome, a condition in newborn babies that causes blueness of the skin as a result of low blood oxygen levels. It also has some connections to cancers such as thyroid cancer, Voskuil noted.

The Economic Toll of CAFOs

In terms of water quality, CAFOs are harmful to the health of individuals who live nearby. They are also costly to taxpayers who may have to pay for medical expenses and the rehabilitation of wells, on top of contending with the loss of tourism dollars in their community, decreasing housing values, and a lack of outdoor recreation opportunities.

Raff’s 2021 study examines the loss in recreational value caused by CAFOs. “The excess manure nutrients get to the water and become algae. Obviously the water can handle a little bit of nutrients, it’s good. But when there’s too much, when this sediment that’s just loaded with phosphorus and ammonia goes into the water, it’s too much and it reaches the point of no return,” said Raff.

This ends up being very costly. “People want to come to Wisconsin and to Minnesota to recreate on water bodies – to fish, to boat, to hike near the water. But then when it stinks, when you can’t go in, when animals get harmed, when you get sick, then [these rural areas] lose all that recreation money in addition to tourism dollars,” said Raff.

According to Raff, the cost of adding one additional CAFO in a watershed is about $200,000 per year, but this estimate only accounts for surface water quality and recreation. “We do not look at the cost of health effects, drinking water, the decrease in housing values, or lost tourism dollars. We don’t look at all of those costs. Our value is definitely a lower bound,” Raff said.

Contamination Mitigation

There is potential for CAFOs to be less damaging to watersheds and the communities that rely on them. According to Raff, the issue comes down to siting, and could be improved by carefully choosing where CAFOs are located. Adding a CAFO to a watershed with many CAFOs causes much more damage than adding a CAFO to a watershed with none.

Siting can also apply to a CAFO’s distance from water bodies. In Colorado, there are regulations called setbacks, which require oil and gas wells to be at least 500 feet away from the nearest stream or river network. Raff suggested a similar sort of regulation could mitigate the problems caused by CAFOs.

Since properly discharging manure is so expensive for CAFOs, another potential solution is the expansion of cost-share programs. Maryland has a program through which farmers receive up to $45 per acre to adhere to a maximum application rate of 6,000 gallons of manure per acre. This allows the manure to serve as fertilizer for the places that need it, Raff explained.

The last potential solution is wastewater treatment plants for CAFOs. “It’s very possible to create that sort of thing,” said Raff. Kewaunee county in Wisconsin is developing several wastewater treatment facilities for CAFOs, he explained. “The only problem with that is that it’s really really expensive.”

Economics, Food Supply, the Health of Rural Communities, and the Environment

Removing the permit requirement and continuing the current manure displacement process is the most cost-effective course of action for CAFOs. In the lawsuit filing, the plaintiffs noted that the application process for a WPDES permit is time-consuming and costly.

“Our [MEA’s] position is that the folks that are the most economically burdened, as well as health and safety burdened, are the folks that are affected by these industries. Those who live downstream or down-gradient, or downwind of these extractive industries and are ultimately left to bear the cost of water contamination or well rehabilitation or medical expenses,” Voskuil said.

The Wisconsin Dairy Alliance did not respond to the Deesmealz’s request for comment, and Venture Dairy Cooperative was unable to be reached.

CAFOs are productive in feeding a lot of people, but to operate them in the most cost-effective way is to harm rural communities and the environment. As this lawsuit unfolds and wastewater treatment plants in Kewaunee county begin to develop, rural communities in Wisconsin will need to reconcile the detrimental environmental and health effects of CAFOs with the reality and necessity of agriculture in rural communities.

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