This is Eileen Wray-McCann for Circle of Blue. And this is What’s Up with Water, your “need-to-know news” of the world’s water, made possible by support from people like you.
In Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, a well-connected real estate developer is building an island in the Mekong River.
The Southeast Asia Globe reports that the $2 billion land reclamation project has received little scrutiny. Neither the Overseas Cambodia Investment Corporation, which is developing the site, nor the national government has made public any assessment of the project’s environmental impacts. The site is at the confluence of the Mekong and Bassac rivers, and previous hydrological studies noted that the area is prone to erosion. Fishermen fear that dredging sand from the river bed to build the island will destabilize river banks and repel fish. The Mekong River Commission, an advisory body, worries that a narrower river channel will increase the risk of floods and that too much dredging will allow salt water to move upstream. The island will be the second Mekong reclamation project for the investment corporation. Like the first, it will feature condos, office buildings and high rises after the land-building phase is completed in 2021.
In the United States, the University of Minnesota will lead a major effort to amplify production of a new strain of wheatgrass.
The project is funded by $10 million in federal funds, and the wheatgrass is called Kernza. According to the Star Tribune, farming experts hope that Kernza could provide a solution to a persistent problem in the Midwest: agricultural pollution threatening community drinking water supplies. Kernza is a perennial grain and requires less fertilizer than corn and soybeans. And, since its roots stay in the ground year-round, it stabilizes the soil to prevent erosion and soaks up the chemicals and fertilizers that contaminate well water. Researchers at the university will work with scientists, farmers, and commodity buyers from around the Great Plains and Midwest to increase the yield of the grain and expand its market. Kernza could be used by restaurants, millers, and brewing companies – but the supply chains for that need to grow, just like the grain.
This week Circle of Blue reports on a water controversy in Michigan around another farming-related pollution source: manure from dairies and livestock operations.
Murray Borrello is a geology and environmental studies professor at Alma College in Gratiot County. Last summer he walked down a backroad, listening to the sounds of the woods. Water from the Pine River flowed slowly beneath him as he looked out over a bridge. “Oh, I hear a frog,” he said. “That’s a good sign.”
Borrello has been monitoring the Pine River for nearly two decades, so he is attuned to the sounds of a healthy ecosystem. His team of students and community members gather data on the 103-mile-long river and its tributaries. They test water samples for an array of pollution indicators: nitrogen and phosphorus, bacteria and dissolved oxygen. Since he began the project in 2003, Borrello said contamination in the watershed has only gotten worse. To Borrello, the source of the problem seems obvious. He told Circle of Blue “The river is loaded with nutrients, it’s loaded with bacteria. We see it upstream and downstream, we can look at where it’s coming from. It’s coming from application sites of manure, and it’s coming from CAFOs themselves.”
CAFOs, or concentrated animal feeding operations, are industrial farms that raise a large number livestock or poultry. Critics of the operations, like Borrello and the Sierra Club, point to a growing body of research revealing the dismal effects CAFOs can have on water and air quality — and on the communities around them.
For example, in 2018, the Iowa Policy project reported on the intense impact the growing number of CAFOs have had on waterways in the United States. They found evidence proving that excess nutrients from CAFOs, like the ones found in the Pine River, can kill any life present for miles around a body of water. If ingested by humans, high levels of nitrate can cause birth defects, cancer, liver damage and a wide range of allergic reactions.
The Pine River is a focal point in a larger pollution picture. The river runs through five mid-Michigan counties, including Gratiot County, where Borrello’s team does most of its monitoring. Gratiot County is home to 27 CAFOs — the third highest of any county in Michigan. That’s according to data from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.
Though numerous, CAFOs aren’t the only suspected source of pollution in the Pine River. The Pine’s history with contamination dates back to the 1930s. Locals recall a time when high levels of dangerous chemicals such as DDT were found in the river. They were dumped there by the Velsicol Chemical Company, operating a riverside factory in St. Louis, Michigan. The company was also responsible for the infamous PBB disaster of the 1970s, in which toxic fire retardants were inadvertently mixed into livestock feed, causing one of the worst mass poisonings in U.S. history. The site where Velsicol once stood is now one of three EPA-designated Superfund sites in St. Louis, Michigan.
However, even as cleanup of those legacy chemicals begins, new threats to the Pine River are taking center stage: dysfunctional septic tanks for one, but also runoff from local farms and CAFOs. These contemporary pollutants spark debates on water quality in the 21st century, with consequences reflected in regulatory costs, environmental degradation, and farm profits. How much waste comes from any one pollution source is highly contested — and contentious.
Nothing about the pollution in the Pine River is particularly unique. Throughout Michigan, contamination from leaky sewage systems is common. Michigan is the only state without a comprehensive septic tank management law. And agriculture is the leading cause of river pollution nationwide.
So Gratiot County residents aren’t the only ones dealing with farm pollution. Every year residents around Lake Erie face harmful algal blooms fed by agricultural runoff. In Ohio, large-scale dairy and livestock farms that are too small to be classified as a CAFO are not regulated. Manure from cows, hogs and chickens wash into the Maumee River, which then flows into Lake Erie.
CAFO waste can pollute surface water with excess phosphorus and nitrogen, two nutrients that cause algal blooms. In a process called eutrophication, algal growth cuts off sunlight and robs the water of oxygen, either killing aquatic life or forcing fish and amphibians to migrate to an area more habitable. In the Pine River, Borrello sees this process happen year after year. At the end of the summer, the river is caked in green slime. He said “Even just simply looking at the river, seeing the algae in the aquatic vegetation choking the river, and then finding some excuse of why we shouldn’t be changing our practices is just beyond me.”
In Gratiot County, it has been too easy for locals, government officials, and polluters themselves to turn a blind eye. Tim Keeton is a biology professor at Alma College who is part of Borrello’s monitoring team. He says the biggest roadblock in their work is the Michigan Farm Bureau. The American Farm Bureau is a national organization, with chapters in all 50 states, representing the American agricultural industry. Its influence as a lobbying group is comparable to the National Rifle Association. Borrello and Keeton said that in Gratiot County, the Farm Bureau has done its best to keep the public from tying Pine River pollution to CAFOs. Keeton told Circle of Blue, “If you talk to the Farm Bureau, they would say that that’s all leaky septic tanks. If you talk to people that kind of sit down and do the math and study the environment around here, they’re going to say, no, it’s got to be mostly feedlot manure applications.”
Laura Campbell is the director of agricultural ecology for the Michigan Farm Bureau. She told Circle of Blue there’s evidence to support both theories. She based this on last December’s watershed management plan for Gratiot county. The goal of the watershed management plan was to give the community a clearer idea of what was contaminating their water so that they could be more effective in cleaning it up.
Julie Spencer is administrator of the Gratiot Conservation District. And she says the the plan does that, and now “there’s no excuse to continue polluting the river.” Spencer said she thinks it’s important to focus on both animal and human sources of pollution, which has made her unpopular among many in the community. She told Circle of Blue “My goal is clean water. Period. Whatever it takes to clean the Pine River is my goal. I will not take sides and I will help anyone who asks for my help.”
Campbell of the Farm Bureau said that the findings in the plan can help the community come together, instead of continuing to point fingers at one another. That includes everyone, even local farmers.
Matt Cary is a third-generation farmer at Cary Pioneer Farms. Over time, his family’s small farm expanded into a large-scale operation. With crops on over 4,000 acres and some 2,000 cattle every year, it’s earned CAFO status. Cary runs the business alongside his father and his brother. He says he owes the majority of his success to his grandfather, who started the farm in 1944. Cary describes him as nothing short of a “visionary” — ahead of the curve on sustainability measures such as soil testing and selective fertilizing. Farming is in the family’s blood, said Cary, who has worked on the farm since he was 16. He says he couldn’t imagine any other way of life, and considers what they have as a large family farm.
Campbell, at the Farm Bureau echoed that sentiment, writing “Permitted livestock are not huge soulless corporate industries. Our permitted farms are family-owned businesses just like smaller farms.” Keeton of Alma College disagrees. He said “The regulations that these feedlots have to deal with are very different than what most industries have to deal with.” He added that any farm with thousands of animals on it is an industry and needs to be treated as such.
Regulations for CAFOs in Michigan are different from those for smaller farms. The permit for CAFOs includes rules on when a farmer is allowed to apply manure and fertilizer on frozen ground and how much manure and fertilizer is allowed to be applied on farm fields at all. The newest permit, revised this year, bans application on frozen ground and considerably limits application on fields. It’s being contested by groups like the Michigan Farm Bureau. They, along with six other agricultural advocacy groups and more than 160 farms, submitted a petition in late May of this year. They argue that the regulations overstep the regulatory authority of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. Until there’s a decision on the newest permit, regulations from 2015 will remain in effect.
The Michigan Farm Bureau feels that the permit’s requirements are, at the very least, hardly backed by science and that the costs of keeping up with the new standards could put some farms out of business entirely. Farmer Cary shared the Farm Bureau’s concerns. He said “I’ll be the first to tell you, some regulation is not a bad thing, because there’s people out there that need that push a little more than others.” But he added that when such strict regulations are imposed, it leaves farmers little time to prepare for change.
Cary said he’s concerned about the outlook for farming, but he’s worried about the environment as well. He said “It’s really important for us to be running our operation for the future of our kids and for our community. But we’re just like anybody else. We’re trying to raise a family, and we drink all the same water.”
Alma College professor Borrello, along with environmental groups, argues that the permit doesn’t go far enough to protect Michigan’s waterways. He doesn’t blame the farmers, though. He points to the regulations as the problem. Borrello does not anticipate that lawmakers will take action to reduce farm pollution. He said “I have no confidence that anybody, Democrat, Republican, Independent, the governor, the attorney general has any desire whatsoever to do anything positive related to protecting our waters from agricultural impact.”
Borello believes that farms that started out small, like the Cary’s, “want to be good stewards.” It’s the system stands in the way. He said “I think they are doing everything to the letter of the law. And the law just doesn’t protect the environment.”
And that’s What’s Up With Water from Circle of Blue, which relies on your support for independent water news and analysis. Please visit circleofblue.org
and make a difference through your tax-deductible donation.