Murky Waters

Are factory farms fouling our water?

By Jacqueline D. Price

Sherry Brock draws her drinking water from a well on her small cow-calf operation near Red Deer.

Like many rural Albertans who live near confined feeding operations, Brock, a founding member of the Society for Environmentally Responsible Livestock Operations (SERLO), fears that manure from these “factory farms” will permanently pollute her groundwater. “Once our water table’s contaminated…there’s no way to clean it up,” she says.

Confined feeding operations (CFOs), which used to be known as intensive livestock operations, are fenced or enclosed areas in which livestock are confined for feeding. Over the years, Alberta’s livestock industry has become more industrialized and specialized: small traditional farms have been replaced with fewer large, high- tech operations. According to Statistics Canada, the number of hog farms dropped 49 per cent from 1986 to 2001, while the number of pigs in the province increased by 33 per cent. Likewise, the number of cattle increased by 75 per cent, while the number of cattle farms grew by only 34 per cent. “We’ve seen the scales of the operations grow larger,” says Ron Axelson, general manager of Alberta Cattle Feeders’ Association. “It’s absolutely essential to stay competitive, to be able to grow…. The small family farm is no longer economically viable.” Gary Sargent, the general manager of Alberta Beef Producers, agrees. “If you don’t have several thousand head in a confined operation, you can’t make a living.”

While the exact number and location of CFOs in Alberta is unknown, Statistics Canada reports that the province has 6.6 million cattle (43 per cent of the national herd) and 2 million pigs. According to Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, the province has around 4,500 cattle feedlots, and just over half of the province’s cattle are “finished” in about 30 of the largest operations, which are mainly located between Calgary and Lethbridge in an area commonly referred to as “Feedlot Alley.”

While cattle feedlots were the province’s CFO leaders in the 1990s, hog operations are now the quickest-growing type of large-scale livestock operation. Worldwide demand for pork is growing, especially from China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan, and Alberta has become a major exporter. “Pork is the number one protein choice in the world,” says Paul Hodgman, the assistant general manager of Alberta Pork. “It’s almost two to one over beef and poultry.… Canada is now the number one exporter of pork in the world.”

Alberta has become a major pork producer partly because of hog-farm moratoriums in Europe, Taiwan, some American states and even Quebec. In these places, inadequate management of manure production from extremely high concentrations of animals has caused, among other problems, massive water pollution and disease. Governments have responded by banning new CFOs. Consequently, some operators, like the Taiwan Sugar Corporation, are trying to relocate their operations to Alberta.

Currently, Alberta’s highest hog density is only around one-eighth that of North Carolina, where major pollution problems are an issue. “We could have huge expansion here and still have lots of soil to put manure on,” says Hodgman.

However, many Canadian organizations, including the Canadian Medical Association, are calling for a moratorium on hog expansion across the country until further studies on the public health impacts are conducted. “We are just on the verge of entering into the same sorts of conflicts that have occurred in other countries and parts of Quebec,” says Paul Hasselback, the medical officer of health for Chinook Health Region.

Along with feces, urine, wastewater, rain, animal bedding material, soil and nutrients, untreated manure may also contain bacteria, viruses and parasites.

But for now, the number of CFOs seems likely to con- tinue climbing. Despite drought and grain shortages, the Natural Resources Conservation Board (which took over responsibility for CFOs from individual municipalities in January, 2002) received 169 applications for new or expanded CFOs in 2002.

The chief by-product of confined feeding operations is manure. With thousands of animals concentrated in confined areas, large volumes are inevitable. According to Statistics Canada’s Nancy Hoffman, about 41.2 billion kilograms of livestock manure was produced in Alberta in 1996. While manure management, storage and spreading practices differ according to CFO type, the potential for water contamination exists in any livestock operation. Untreated manure can leach into the ground- water or run off into surface water. Along with feces, urine, wastewater, rain, animal bedding material, soil and nutrients, untreated manure may also contain bacteria (E. coli, salmonella, campylobacter), viruses and parasites (cryptosporidium, giardia).

The contamination increases as drought reduces the amount of water in our lakes and rivers—water that we depend on to dilute the wastes and maintain water quality. Some southern Alberta river basins, such as the South Saskatchewan, are already at critically low levels. And this is the area of the province with the highest CFO concentration.

One potential impact of manure runoff is nutrient enrichment, or eutrophication, of surface waters due to manure’s high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus. Too much phosphorus can cause excessive aquatic plant growth and pond scum as oxygen is depleted. The resulting blue-green algae can be toxic to fish and ducks as well as to livestock and humans. Excessive nitrate leaching can also be toxic for aquatic life, livestock and humans.

Manure can also be a source of pathogens in our water. A 2002 Alberta Agriculture study of the relation- ship between beef production and waterborne parasites in the North Saskatchewan River basin correlated high levels of cryptosporidium and giardia with livestock density. David Schindler, a professor of ecology at the University of Alberta, says that from a human health standpoint, this is the most serious impact of CFOs on water quality. “The rash of boil water orders, outbreaks of cryptosporidium, giardia et cetera across Canada should be a warning that we need to clean up our act.” Many cases of campylobacter in southern Alberta can be directly linked to CFOs, says Paul Hasselback. Although not perceived as being as serious as E. coli 0157:H7, which was responsible for the Walkerton outbreak, campylobacter can lead to complications for “medically fragile” people, he says. Chinook Health Region had 130 cases of campylobacter and 34 cases of E. coli 0157:H7 in 2001.

This connection between untreated manure from CFOs and health problems, argues Anne-Marie Anderson, an Alberta Environment water quality specialist, are just hypotheses. She cautions that we should not blame only CFOs for water contamination. Brent Paterson, who is head of irrigation for Alberta Agriculture in Lethbridge, agrees. Wildlife can also contaminate our surface water with fecal coliform bacteria, he says. “To think that there are pristine waters in Alberta is simply false. There’s no such thing.”

Paterson says his studies of the Oldman River basin, which contains some of the highest concentrations of CFOs in Alberta, show that CFOs have little impact on water quality. Despite the amount of livestock waste generated in “Feedlot Alley”—estimated to be equivalent to the waste from about 18 million people—Paterson says the impact of CFOs on water quality in the Oldman River is similar to that of a town of only about 5,000 people. “That suggests to me that the industry and governments are doing a pretty good job at present.”

Many rural residents would disagree. In 2002, the Natural Resources Conservation Board received 981 complaints involving 431 CFOs. Of 36 enforcement orders the board issued, about one-third involved releases or potential releases of contaminated manure into water bodies, says John Thompson, director of board reviews for NRCB. In one case, manure-contaminated runoff from a hog operation near Picture Butte entered a canal sup- plying water for downstream landowners. Lisa Bechtold, a grain farmer near Foremost and vice president of SERLO, feels that the NRCB has insufficient inspectors to enforce their regulations. “It’s a complaint-driven method,” she says. “There’s lots of things that may go on that we don’t even know about.”

In theory, CFOs should be able to manage their manure without contaminating the surrounding water. Manure on CFOs is typically stored in lagoons or catchment basins until it is spread or injected (usually untreated) into surrounding fields.

“A lot of people are concerned about [hog] lagoons, but they are built of clay and most of them have liners,” says Alberta Pork’s Paul Hodgman. The potential for real water contamination problems comes only if there are gross breaks or leaks, and studies of old hog lagoons in the late 1990s found virtually no seepage, he says. Alberta Beef ’s Gary Sargent says the same is true for cattle feed-lots.

“They’re all landscaped in such a way that they’re drained to central ponds so that during times of rain or spring runoff…nothing leaves the site.” Manure in feed- lot pens is also compacted over time by the animals’ hooves, forming an impenetrable layer, he says. John Thompson says the new NRCB standards provide a high degree of environmental protection. While some leaching is inevitable, he says, the amount is insignificant.

But these measures don’t account for unusual circumstances. David Schindler says that the NRCB guidelines are reasonable for average conditions, but not for “accidents” or “extreme weather events.” “It doesn’t take many such events to permanently compromise a river or groundwater,” he says. “The U.S. Natural Resources Defense Council and many other organizations have documented the failure of lagoons.”

Sherry Brock describes manure storage lagoons as “outhouse technology” that Europe has rejected. Even clay-lined lagoons are not impenetrable, she says. “That’s like saying the Titanic is unsinkable. It happens, and they know it happens.”

Once the manure storage lagoons are full, the waste is spread over land. Manure application is a complex process. Over-application may contaminate soil, surface water and groundwater with nutrients, sediments and pathogens. A current concern is phosphorus buildup in the soil, since manure disposal limits have been based on nitrogen rather than phosphorus levels. A recent University of Calgary and Alberta Agriculture study of a manured sandy field with a shallow aquifer near Lethbridge concluded that enough phosphorus leached into the water table to significantly affect surface-water quality.

Like lagoons, says Brock, the practice of spreading raw manure on fields is outdated and contaminates surface water. “Walkerton is the perfect example,” she says. “Human waste is treated, but this [waste] is not.… It’s an unacceptable risk.” Dixon Thompson, a professor of environmental science at the University of Calgary, agrees. “If there were a human population producing the equivalent of human sewage, there would be very strict regulations governing what they could release that would affect either groundwater or surface water. The disposal methods that intensive livestock operations are allowed to use would not match the standards, say, required of the city of Calgary.”

The untreated manure that CFOs spread in large quantities on fields also contains the antibiotics that operators use to prevent disease in the livestock. This creates a breeding ground for antibiotic-resistant microbes. When these microbes enter the groundwater or surface water, they can be passed on to humans and other animals.

According to Thompson, this type of water contamination and the potential for antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in humans are “the most frightening issues” associated with CFOs. AMR costs each hospital in Canada hundreds of thousands of dollars a year as the spectrum of effective antibiotics narrows.

Contamination increases as drought reduces the amount of water in our lakes and rivers.

Studies have suggested a link between the prophylactic use of antibiotics and AMR in humans. In 2002, an advisory committee on AMR reported to Health Canada that “resistance is a serious problem in bacterial infections of humans originating from animals.” The committee recommended that the government change the ways antibiotics are regulated, distributed and used in animals. A 2001 study of two hog farms by University of Illinois scientists discovered antibiotic resistant genes in the lagoons, wells and groundwater more than 250 metres downstream of the lagoons.

However, the link between CFOs’ use of antibiotics and AMR in humans has not been conclusively drawn. “Some work…suggests that organisms do develop some resistance and they do spread in the immediate vicinity of that feedlot,” says Hasselback. “Whether that’s sufficient for it to result in further spread that could contribute to human illness has not been demonstrated.”

Similarly, a link between the use of growth hormones in CFOs and human health problems has been suggested but not proved. Studies conducted in 1998 by the National Water Research Institute and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada confirmed the presence of high concentrations of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, including natural estrogens, in hog manure. The studies showed that these chemicals enter nearby waterways shortly after manure is applied to fields and have long-term adverse effects on the growth, development and reproduction of fish and wildlife. But, says Dixon Thompson, “We’re not sure what this does, particularly when you end up getting a combination of pesticide residues with the hormones.” Hasselback agrees, “There’s a lot more that we don’t know than we do know about the environmental and health impacts relative to these livestock operations.”

While a CFO moratorium is unlikely in Alberta, increasing public awareness of CFO-related problems is encouraging the province’s government agencies and livestock industry to proactively address the environmental risks. “The industry really has grown up in the last 10 years [and] is doing as much as it can to minimize the risk,” says Ron Axelson of the Alberta Cattle Feeders’ Association. The provincial and federal governments, livestock industry and scientists are developing “beneficial management practices” designed to minimize the impacts of CFOs on water quality. If new research indicates that changes must be made, the industry will adapt, says Axelson. Also, the Alberta Environmentally Sustainable Agriculture (AESA) program, steered by agriculture industry members, monitors the water quality of 23 agricultural watersheds across the province to gather long-term baseline information. “It’s really the only pro- gram of its type across the country,” says James Wuite, the head of water quality for Alberta Agriculture.

The Natural Resource Conservation Board’s John Thompson says that government regulations will continue to adapt as conditions change and technologies advance. And the Alberta government is working with the livestock industry to minimize environmental impacts through AESA’s voluntary Environmental Farm Plans.

Several CFOs have already adopted practices to minimize the impact of their operations’ manure on the environment. Little Red Feeders, a 4,000-head feedlot near Innisfail, has incorporated settling ponds, filter strips and man-made marshlands to purify the polluted feedlot water and prevent it from contaminating the Little Red Deer River. Pure Lean’s Bow Island and Oyen hog barns produce no liquid waste and they neither store nor spread manure. Instead, the operation, which was award- ed the 2002 Canadian Agri-Food Award of Excellence for environmental stewardship, uses a dry bed system and aerobic composting technology to prevent harmful bacteria from entering ground or surface water. Highland Feeders, a 36,000-head finishing feedlot near Vegreville, is adapting a manure treatment system to process solid manure by using high temperature anaerobic digestion, which kills pathogens. They also recover the phosphorus, potassium and nitrogen from the liquid manure before spreading it on the land.

It is not yet clear whether Alberta will develop the kind of pollution problems other regions with CFOs have seen or will become a showcase for progressive livestock operations. John Thompson argues that larger, newer operations built to strict code may affect water quality less than older, smaller operations constructed before such standards existed. “I’d much rather have one ‘Syncrude’ than 600 small operations, none of which have big pockets, who are looking for shortcuts to ensure that they have a profit and still keep operating,” he says.

Livestock farmers say it is in their best interest to be vigilant about issues like water contamination. “As agricultural producers, we live and work and have our families in the communities that we operate in,” says Paul Hodgman, “and we no more want to hurt them than we want to hurt anybody. We practise proper technologies.… We’re as concerned about putting a quality product on the table and keeping a sustainable environment as anybody is. It’s to our best interest.”

Meanwhile, Sherry Brock and Lisa Bechtold will continue to monitor their well water and maintain their role as CFO watchdogs. “If we pollute our water and our air, they’re not things that can be fixed easily,” says Bechtold. “And if we’re without water, we’re in trouble.”

Jacqueline D. Price is a Calgary freelance journalist. She has a master’s degree in environmental design from the University of Calgary.

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