Friday, September 18, 2009

Farm runoff blamed for polluting water wells; EPA says it's the largest source of water pollution

Morrison, Wis., is home over 100 polluted wells, but the contamination isn't from one of the usual suspects; it's from nearby dairy farms. "Agricultural runoff is the single largest source of water pollution in the nation’s rivers and streams, according to the Environmental Protection Agency," Charles Duhigg of The New York Times reports as part of the paper's series on water pollution. (Times photo by Damon Winter)

"An estimated 19.5 million Americans fall ill each year from waterborne parasites, viruses or bacteria, including those stemming from human and animal waste, according to a study published last year in the scientific journal Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology," Duhigg reports.

In Brown County, Wisconsin, 41,000 dairy cows produce more than 260 million gallons of manure each year, and much of that waste is spread on nearby grain fields, and other farmers receive fees to cover their land with slaughterhouse waste and treated sewage, Duhigg reports. "In measured amounts, that waste acts as fertilizer. But if the amounts are excessive, bacteria and chemicals can flow into the ground and contaminate residents’ tap water." Tests of a Morrison resident's well revealed E. coli, coliform bacteria and other contaminants found in manure.

The Clean Water Act of 1972 regulates mostly chemicals or contaminants moved through pipes or ditches, Duhigg reports. To address agricultural runoff, EPA has created special rules for farms with more than 700 cows, but many of those rules are effectively ignored because farmers never file the paperwork, EPA officials told Duhigg. Rules enacted during the Bush administration regulations allow many of those farmers to self-certify they won't pollute.

California, Arkansas, Maryland, Oklahoma and the Chesapeake Bay each have histories of agricultural runoff contaminating water sources. Despite assertions from Brown County residents that the farms are the source of their problems, pinpointing the source of pollution can be very difficult. “All of our waste management is reviewed by our agronomist and by the state’s regulators,” Brown County dairy farmer Dan Natzke told Duhigg. “We follow all the rules.” Records show Natzke's farm was fined $56,000 in 2008 for spreading excessive waste; he declined to comment on the fine.

EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson told Duhigg, “I don’t think there’s a solution in my head yet that I could say, right now, write this piece of legislation, this will get it done.” Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle has financed projects to use farm waste to generate electricity as one solution to the excess. Adam Collins, spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, reminded Duhigg: “Approximately 800,000 private drinking water wells serve rural Wisconsin residents. The vast majority of wells provide safe drinking water.” (Read more)

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