LENAWEE COUNTY, Mich. — Farming is in Pam Taylor’s blood. Her family has been farming in rural Lenawee County on Michigan’s southern border since 1837.
That’s the year Michigan became a state, one surrounded by the most amazing concentration of fresh water in the world.
But in recent years, she’s become increasingly worried that those lakes are being threatened by giant “factory farms” that are producing vast amounts of manure, resulting in large quantities of phosphorous getting into the lakes.
Phosphorus pollution leads to the enormous spread of huge blooms of blue-green algae that are bad enough in themselves, but worse, carry toxic cyanobacteria that can be deadly to humans and other living things. While the blooms have been a problem for years, they first got national attention in 2014, when for three days in August, the water in Toledo and parts of southern Michigan was declared unsafe to drink.
For the last several years, Ms.Taylor, a retired teacher, has been a full-time volunteer with the Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan, where, as she told me with a laugh, “I study poop,” specifically, its effect on the lakes.
Her group is part of something called the Less=More Coalition, and last week, they released a comprehensive report, “A Watershed Moment” on what’s been happening.
Among its findings:
● Michigan at the end of last year had 272 huge factory farms (technically known as CAFOs, for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). All told, they held 21 million animals, two for every human resident.
● Together, these huge operations produce more than 3.3 billion gallons of animal urine and waste every year. This is not treated like human sewage, but instead is stored in giant open cesspits called lagoons. Eventually, it is mixed with groundwater and used as fertilizer.
● Too often, the stuff that feeds the algae is getting into the lakes. Monroe County’s River Raisin, which flows directly into Lake Erie, has twice the amount of dissolved phosphorus it did in the 1990s. The problem is not just Erie, however. The highest concentration of CAFOs are in the Saginaw Bay-Lake Huron area.
In their report, members of the coalition argue that we have only a limited time to do something about it.
“Unless efforts are better targeted, it is just a matter of time before another toxic mass floats into another municipal water intake somewhere in the Great Lakes.
“Where will it happen next?” the report asks.
To be sure, there hasn’t been a repeat of the Toledo toxic water episode since 2014, and the Environmental Protection Agency declined requests this year to declare western Lake Erie impaired.
But Pam Taylor thinks we are playing a dangerous game of chicken with the most important source of fresh water in the hemisphere. What’s most ironic, she said, is that while the federal government spends millions on various efforts to fight phosphorous from getting into the water, it spends even more to subsidize factory farms.
Michigan CAFOs “racked up 644 environmental enforcement actions by the state through 2016, while receiving $104 million in subsidies since 1995.”
The precise definition of a CAFO is complex, and varies slightly from state to state. It is based not just on number of animals but on their weight.
For example, Ms. Taylor said, “they’ve determined that 700 dairy cows is a large CAFO.” When it comes to manure pollution, dairy cattle are the most significant source; the Watershed Moment report identified them as producing nearly 80 percent of the waste.
Meindert Van DenHengel, who runs a huge hog CAFO near Van Wert, Ohio, told me at a forum last March he thinks factory farms get unjustly blamed. “We have regulations we have to follow. A farmer can have one animal less and get away with polluting.”
Pam Taylor said there was some truth in that, but that she didn’t think it made a big difference. She believes the various governments could do two things that would go a long way to saving the lakes.
First, “instead of subsidizing the CAFOs, spend money to help crops people can eat, especially fruits and vegetables,” she said.
But most importantly, she thinks municipal sewage treatment plants should be required for the processing of animal waste, just as they are for human waste.
What that would cost and who would pay for that isn’t clear, though she believes the farmers themselves should share all or most of the burden. “They’ve been the beneficiary of a lot of government subsidies over the years. They can certainly pay their fair share,” she said.
Nor does she know what requiring proper waste treatment would mean for the price of meat, something that could potentially affect her too.
“I eat meat. I’m not a vegetarian,” she said. But she does know that nothing would be more expensive than a polluted Lake Erie or Huron.
Addressing the problem now might be far easier and cheaper than waiting until it is too late.
Jack Lessenberry, the head of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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