Manure/Dairy Farms-Spilling Wisconsin’s Waterways


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Feb 24, 2021
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Manure Is Spilling and Seeping into Wisconsin’s Waterways and Wells

As the state’s dairy farms get bigger, cow poop is polluting Lake Michigan and people’s drinking water.

November 17, 2016

Kewaunee County has the second-highest number of concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, in the state. It’s also where nitrates or E. coli, or both, from bovine sources contaminated 30 percent of private drinking water wells last year, according to tests run by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). E. coli infections can be deadly, and high nitrate levels can lead to birth defects and blue baby syndrome, named for the tint an infant’s skin takes on when the contaminant deprives the blood of oxygen. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services has investigated a number of blue baby syndrome cases, finding at least three tied to nitrates in drinking water, and is expecting nitrate concentrations in aquifers to increase.

Cattle waste makes its mark above ground, too. Just last February in southwestern Wisconsin, a spill sent between 30,000 and 120,000 gallons of manure into Castle Rock Creek. When excess manure washes into water bodies, Lake Michigan for example, it can trigger algae blooms. As the algae die and sink to the bottom, the bacteria that eat them flourish, deoxygenating the water and creating a dead zone in which fish and other aquatic life suffocate.

Every year a dead zone forms in Green Bay, and these have lasted up to 69 days. Agriculture is not the only contributor to the Green Bay dead zone. According to the state DNR, municipal and industrial wastewater, as well as city sewage and runoff from lawns, also contributes phosphorus to Lake Michigan. But 46 percent of the water contaminant comes from farms. Green mats of algae coat the lake’s sandy shores, and the state regularly closes beaches due to E. coli contamination.

This isn’t just a Wisconsin thing. The swelling of CAFOs is trending across the country. The Chicago Tribune recently published a series of articles on the growth of pig farms in Illinois, the fourth-largest pork-producing state, describing manure spills that washed into streams and killed fish. “It looked like ink, the water. It had fish all over the place, dead. It wasn’t fit for nothing. Not even a wild animal could drink out of it,” a retired farmer told the reporter. In North Carolina, a new mapping project documents 6,500 industrial hog and chicken farms and their devastating health impacts on the state’s residents and waters.
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