Pine River Woes Worsen
Posted on Wednesday, September 4th, 2019 and is filed under FEATURE, News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
Herald Staff Writer
Boating on a river sounds like a nice activity for a beautiful summer’s day.
Except when that river is so choked with algae and aquatic vegetation that the motor won’t push you — so thick you can’t even oar through it.
But that’s exactly why Murray Borrello was there.
In many ways, it was just another day for the director and chair of the Program of Environmental Studies at Alma College. For the past 17 years, Borrello and his colleagues have been monitoring and doing research on the Pine River. He went out on that August day to measure the dissolved oxygen levels up and down the waterway — a fairly routine procedure.
But he can usually get the boat to move.
“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen,” he said. “I’ve never seen the river this bad.”
Borrello has had little to be optimistic about in his work with the Pine River over the past two decades. He’s watched as unnaturally high nutrient levels have caused an explosion of algae and aquatic vegetation and as E. coli concentrations have skyrocketed, signaling the “precipitous deterioration of a very fine watershed.”
So when St. Louis residents raised concerns about the “swamp-like” state of the river near Michigan Avenue in early July, Borrello was not surprised; he was ready to help.
Borrello engaged his summer research students to try to find the source of the nutrients — high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous — that are feeding the algae and aquatic vegetation in St. Louis. While he will continue to gather data into the fall, he said the preliminary results seem to confirm last summer’s findings: the nutrients probably are coming from not the Pine River itself, but from other inlets.
They have identified two tributaries, Sugar Creek and Horse Creek, that seem to be the main source of the nutrient pollution. Those creeks also yielded some samples that were very high in thermotolerant E. coli.
There are a couple of possible origins for the nutrients in the Horse Creek inlet, Borrello said. The tributary flows near the Evergreen Village mobile home park, so it is possible that the pollution is either coming from a potential leak in the village’s communal septic system or from a source further upstream.
But the “primary culprit” of the St. Louis algal blooms seems to be Sugar Creek, the tributary Borrello and his researchers identified last summer. He said the high nutrient levels and E. coli counts suggest that “a lot of manure” is entering that inlet — and that St. Louis’ problem is likely a result of agricultural runoff.
A fecal feud
A heated debate surrounds the question of where the majority of the nutrients and the E. coli come from. Improperly treated human waste and agricultural runoff are both known sources of nutrients and bacteria, and there is disagreement across the county about which is the more pressing concern.
Complicating the debate is the difficulty in pinpointing exactly where the pollution originates. While the concentrations of nutrients and E. coli can be measured, those tests alone can’t identify the pollution’s source. And while a relatively new technology called fecal source tracking promises to genetically identify what species fecal pollution comes from, not all scientists trust the test.
Tim Keeton is an associate professor of biology at Alma College who consults with Borrello on the Pine River problem. His experiences with fecal source tracking over the past two years leave him “skeptical” about its reliability. He said the technique is “very difficult” to perform correctly and is not at all “ready for primetime.”
“By the time you get to a conclusion, you have so manipulated the data that you get from your tests that I have a lot of concerns about biases creeping in to these tests,” Keeton said.
Despite the lack of a surefire test to determine the source of the pollution, both Borrello and Keeton are convinced that agricultural runoff is the larger contributor. Neither scientist denies that there are issues with human waste contaminating the river: the recent news of the human waste pollution near Riverdale, for example, can’t be ignored. But for the scientists, the question is a matter of scale.
Gratiot County is one of the few counties in the state of Michigan that has both more cows and more pigs than people. Recent census data estimates the human population of Gratiot County at 40,599; the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s 2017 Census of Agriculture places the number of cattle and calves at 54,333 and the number of hogs and pigs at 46,355.
Taking into account that those animals both produce significantly more waste than humans, Keeton said that even if all human waste in the county was untreated, he would still expect that to have less of an impact than the livestock’s waste. And considering that a good amount of the county’s human waste does go though a municipal wastewater treatment plant like Alma’s, he has no doubt that human waste accounts for only a small portion of the contamination in the river.
“When you again consider the relative numbers, the number of humans pooping in Gratiot County and the number of human equivalents of cattle pooping in Gratiot County, I would certainly put money on the fact that the majority of our problem here is cattle,” Keeton said. “That’s just a simple little mind experiment, but that’s all we have to go on right now.”
“Bad eggs” in every industry
Michigan’s agriculture industry is well aware of their responsibility to help protect the environment, according to Erica Rogers, an environmental management educator with MSU Extension. She thinks that the several programs, resources and regulations that are in place for farmers sometimes go unnoticed.
From voluntary conservation practices to the requirements to which Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) must adhere, Michigan agricultural resources cover virtually all areas of farming, she said.
Many best-practice recommendations are laid out as a part of Michigan’s Right to Farm Act, which was adopted in 1981. The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) publishes a series of Generally Accepted Agricultural Management Practices (GAAMPs) that address a wide-range of farming practices. These voluntary recommendations are reviewed and updated annually by representatives of multiple institutions.
The GAAMPs are extensive. The Manure Management and Utilization GAAMPs, for example, include recommendations about runoff control and wastewater management, odor management, land application, and construction and design of manure storage facilities, Rogers said.
While farms are not required to follow the GAAMPs, it is beneficial for them to do so, she said. If they are faced with a nuisance complaint, following the GAAMPs offers them a certain level of protection.
And farmers who want to go the extra mile can participate in the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP), a voluntary program which helps farmers assess and reduce their environmental risk, said Ben Tirrell, MDARD’s Right to Farm program manager.
Referencing the MAEAP program, Tirrell said he thinks Michigan does “a better job” than a lot of neighboring states when it comes to “agricultural stewardship” — and that programs like this demonstrate that Michigan agriculture “is committed to doing its part” to protect the environment.
“Almost 3,000 farms have gone through a program that’s been thrown money and time to take all these conservation measures, out of no other reason than to do the right thing,” Tirrell said. “I think it’s a great story and I think our program works well, and our colleagues at EGLE [the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy], I think do a good job.”
Unlike non-permitted farms, CAFOs are subject to a rigid set of requirements from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and EGLE, formerly known as the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Defined in the Clean Water Act as “point-source” dischargers, CAFOs must have a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit issued by the state to help protect surface water quality, said Bruce Washburn, the environmental quality specialist with EGLE’s Water Resources Division.
CAFOs must also have a Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan (CNMP), an extensive document which is a record of all things to do with nutrient and manure management, Rogers said. CAFOs typically hire in a consultant to write the “huge” document, which includes information about manure and soil nutrient content, field and facility maps, manure storage structure information, conservation practices, and emergency action plans.
CAFOs that produce more waste than they can use are allowed to transfer the manure to another producer by means of a manifest, a document that serves as a record for the transfer, Washburn said. It includes information about the amount and the nutrient content of the waste as well as statement informing the recipient of their responsibility to handle the manure properly and legally.
In a nutshell, the amount of waste that CAFOs can legally spread on their field is limited — and direct waste discharge to a waterway is illegal for any farm, Rogers added. And, Washburn said, if a CAFO is following all rules and regulations in good faith, all of their waste should be accounted for.
Rogers said that for all farms, there is “a lot more than people realize” in terms of recommended practices and regulations — and while there are “bad eggs” in every industry, farmers are generally good people who are “trying to do the right thing.”
“I find myself going to bat a lot of times for farmers because I want people to understand that there’s a lot more that’s done in farming and agriculture, I think, than meets the eye sometimes,” she said. “And so again, it’s not that everybody’s doing a good job of that in the community as far as agriculture is concerned, but there are a lot of people that do.”
Borrello and Keeton also have faith in the farmers, agreeing that most try to do the right thing. The scientists emphasized that they aren’t blaming the farmers for the river’s problems: they think that the existing guidelines and regulations are ineffective.
Some of the concerns surround CAFO compliance monitoring. Washburn said that self-reporting is utilized to monitor compliance to the NPDES permit largely because of the huge number of CAFOs in the state, which includes 26 permitted facilities in Gratiot County.
“We recognize that with the thousands of permitted facilities, in addition to other responsibilities, there are not enough resources to have staff dedicated to fulfilling the reporting requirements,” Washburn said.
Compliance is also monitored through complaint response. Under the Right to Farm Act, MDARD is the organization to respond to “nuisance complaints,” but farmers can refuse to let MDARD officials enter their property. In that case — or in the case that of a clear environmental violation — an EGLE representative will investigate the claim.
But Jane Keon, a founding member of the Healthy Pine River group, says that EGLE representatives often can’t get to waterway sites quickly enough.
“That’s been frustrating here because in the past, we’ve had citizens see something, report it, and three days later, when EGLE gets here to sample the water, of course the poop has all moved downstream by then,” Keon said.
Washburn said that EGLE responds to complaints “as quickly and diligently” as possible. And while the department can’t “deputize” citizens to collect samples for them, they “appreciate any information the public may provide” when they report.
Borrello, for his part, thinks the issue is bigger than a few individual compliance issues. He maintains that the existing rules and recommendations simply aren’t effective. He said that while there is “some value” to them, he and his colleagues believe that overall, they “do not protect the environment from these nutrients and from potentially risky levels of E. coli.”
“In a way, putting the waste on the field, knifing it into the soil does lock it to some degree and provide nutrients to some degree for the crops, so it is better than just dumping it in,” he said. “Our findings have been there’s just such an overwhelming volume of nutrients and waste from CAFOs in this county and other places in the state that the environment simply can’t handle that amount.”
And Borrello’s claim isn’t an abstract musing: a research student of his is currently working on calculating the county’s manure “saturation point.” Utilizing a model used by the University of Iowa, Alma College student Chelsea Faber is comparing the nutrients produced by CAFO animal waste to the nutrient needs of the county’s crops. The project is part of a collaboration between Alma College and the Michigan Environmental Council, Borrello said.
Though the specific numbers are not ready for publication, he can say with confidence that the CAFO waste alone in this county — even without including contributions from other waste or chemical fertilizers — contains too many nutrients for the environment to handle.
“We can safely say that we believe from our data that just CAFO waste is producing more nutrients per acre than what is needed by the crops that are grown in this county,” he said.
Struggles and solutions
Rogers, the MSU extension officer, said that it is “completely fair” to ask if Gratiot County simply has too many animals. But for her part, she is focusing on helping to minimize the impact of agriculture as it exists now. She said the many factors that have led to the high concentration of animals in the county complicate the search for a solution.
Rogers explained that society has a “Walmart mentality” when it comes to eating habits: people want “cheap food” that’s “easily accessible.” But this push leads to a “cyclic” relationship with the food production industry, creating a persistent demand for cheaper food and resulting in more CAFOs.
“It’s a lot bigger scope than just [saying] ‘Well, we can’t have any more animals here’,” Rogers said. “It’s eating habits of people, it’s what people are willing to pay… There is a complete shift that has to happen nationally — worldly, in that sense.”
Borrello agrees. While he believes that there are a number of feasible solutions to Michigan’s river woes, he said they all inevitably will lead to increased food costs.
“It just is the way it is — I don’t know how you get around that,” he said.
Borrello said he believes there are four realistic solutions to addressing excess CAFO waste in Michigan, the first of which is to build wastewater treatment systems for such operations, treating CAFOs like “small cities.”
This move would make the CAFO regulations more closely aligned with other point source pollution dischargers, like factories and municipal wastewater treatment plants, he said.
A second solution would follow an example set by the European Union: limit the size of CAFOs and the number allowed to operate in a given area based on calculations of what the environment can handle. Currently, there is not a limit on how many CAFOs can operate in Michigan, or on how close they can be to one another, Borrello said.
Another option would involve dehydrating excess waste to eliminate E. coli and other bacteria and use it in “some sort of end product.” And the fourth option would be to build biogas facilities with anaerobic digesters that produce methane — natural gas — that can be used as an energy source.
Borrello said that the biogas facility solution is popular among many in the farming community, but is far from an ideal solution from an environmental perspective. Not only are anaerobic digesters finicky machines, but they contribute to climate change by burning greenhouse gases.
There is also a fifth solution — one that would involve another major societal shift.
“We need to eat less meat,” Borrello said.
The best solution, however, probably lies in a “combination of these possibilities,” he said.
“I think that would effectively take care of the problem,” he said.
Both Borrello and Keeton pointed out that any successful solution to the nutrient pollution and E. coli contamination in the river has to come from the top down: they said it is unfair and unrealistic to expect farmers to be able to make such drastic changes without support — and financial assistance — from the government.
While there’s no easy solution, the scientists agree that it’s imperative to take more steps towards addressing the nutrients and E. coli in the river as the problem continues to worsen. From the data he’s gathered this summer, Borrello said that even areas of the river that were relatively clean a few years ago are now showing the effects of the pollution.
“I think it’s safe to say that there is really no part of the watershed from the absolute headwaters to St. Louis Dam that is not heavily impacted by agriculture,” he said.
Keeton said the evidence that we need a change is right outside.
“It’s obvious that [the current system] doesn’t work the way it’s intended,” he said. “All you have to do is look at the river.”