A Clean Water Campaign's Threat To US Agriculture
January 18, 1999
by Dennis T. Avery
CHURCHVILLE, Va.—Most of America's big hog and poultry farms are under state-imposed "zero-discharge" regulations. That means they can't dump wastes into streams or let nutrients from the fields on which they spread their wastes leach into lakes or rivers.
What would protect our streams and rivers better than raising our livestock and poultry under such zero-discharge requirements? Nothing invented so far.
But Vice President Al Gore and his sidekick, Administrator Carol Browner of the Environmental Protection Agency, say they're going to "crack down" on water pollution from big hog, cattle and poultry farms raising animals in confinement.
To this end, Browner's EPA recently put out a set of tough proposed regulations for "confined animal feeding operations."
FARMERS ARE IN FAVOR of high water quality. But they're already helping the nation get it. Raising animals in confinement is one of the important ways in which farmers protect our water quality.
The big confinement livestock operations are already under zero-discharge requirements, or nearly so. There are fewer and fewer outdoor meat and milk animals whose wastes wash into the streams.
North Carolina's Department of Environment and Natural Resources says the state's Black River, draining the most intensive hog-production area in America, now has better water quality than it had in 1975, when one-fifth as many hogs grew in the watershed. The zero-discharge requirements really do protect the environment.
FERTILIZER USE on U.S. farms has been stable for the past 15 years, while corn yields have increased 25 percent. As plants use nutrients more efficiently, less is left over to wash into streams.
Farmers' new conservation tillage incorporates crop residue in the soil surface, cutting water runoff by up to 95 percent. Conservation tillage is being used on nearly 200 million crop acres, so it has radically reduced the sediment and pollutants carried from fields to streams.
How important will the vice president's publicized crackdown be in further enhancing water quality?
We can get some idea from North Carolina, where some of the EPA's ideas are already being tried out. North Carolina has just issued a revised permit for Smithfield Foods' pork packing plant at Tar Heel, which slaughters 7.5 million hogs per year.
THE STATE has stipulated that Smithfield cannot buy hogs from producers that have been penalized for polluting state waters or that have overapplied waste water on their fields. The EPA has proposed the same sort of linkage for the federal rules.
Guess how many of the thousands of hog farms supplying Smithfield will be impacted by the purchase ban? Answer: Five. The federal rules will have similarly small impact, because hardly any jurisdiction has ever allowed big confinement hog farms to pollute freely.
Small, outdoor producers are often overlooked because they are small and because their neighbors have long been used to what they do. The big farms have been closely monitored from the moment construction began.
THE EPA'S confined-feeding proposals suggest that "vulnerable watersheds" should seek "alternative uses of manure." But there are no alternative uses of manure.
The first choice has always been to use it responsibly as organic fertilizer on feed crops. The second alternative is to use fossil fuels to dry and burn the manure, but good luck getting the burning permits.
The third possibility is to send the manure to a sewage-treatment plant that would let half the nutrients flow into the streams and rivers. (That's what we do with the nitrates and phosphates from our city wastes.)
MEANWHILE, the EPA doesn't want farm animals coming into direct contact with streams.
Woven-wire fencing in my area runs nearly $13,000 per mile. If the EPA demands 100,000 miles of streams fenced (on both sides), the cost to farmers would be $2.6 billion.
Will that make our streams safe for hikers to drink from? Nope. The latest research finds that deer and especially raccoons are significant sources of E. coli bacteria in surface waters.
Streams were never truly safe to drink from. One-third of our deaths used to come from water-related infections.
HOW BAD is America's water quality today? Nobody knows. The Clean Water Act has never required us to check our water quality, and mostly we haven't. That leaves the field open to activists who write scary press releases.
The U.S. Geologic Survey says the National Water Quality Inventory data are so flawed that it can't even summarize national water quality conditions and trends, not to mention let the data serve as the basis for binding regulations on farmers.
Farmers may have to sue the EPA over the new water regulations and demand real evidence of water quality problems.
The alternative is apparently to watch farms being sacrificed to political ambition and the budget aspirations of the EPA.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.