03/07/2012 - The Chesapeake Bay is a national treasure and the perfect example of a national problem. With nearly 12,000 miles of shoreline spanning six states and the District of Columbia, the estuary has suffered from nutrient pollution for decades, a significant part of it emitted by concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in the watershed. An urgently needed rule is expected from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in June to help control CAFO pollution in the bay and, once established, should serve as the model for a national policy to safeguard watersheds across the country.
Not until the late 1970s did a serious decline of plant and animal life spur a five-year study by the Environmental Protection Agency to determine what lay behind the bay's problems. That analysis showed excess nutrients, such as phosphorous and nitrogen, were to blame. This influx had jeopardized the more than 2,700 plant species and 500 types of fish and shellfish that live in the bay's waters. What's more, nutrient pollution weakened the marine economy of the Chesapeake, a cornerstone for many livelihoods.
In response, officials from neighboring states and the EPA formed the Chesapeake Executive Council. In 1987, it established a goal of reducing the amount of harmful nutrients entering the bay by 40 percent by the year 2000. When restoration efforts fell short, the council recalibrated, setting its sights on major reductions by 2010. When that target came and went, the bay was still choking.
All these failed efforts share a common thread: Every major assessment since 1987 has found agriculture to be the top single contributor of nutrient pollution to the Chesapeake, with animal-based operations supplying about a quarter of the total. Large volumes of animal manure and ineffective controls on how this waste is released back onto the land, and eventually into the water, add to the problem. The required action is clear. Managers need to get serious about controlling manure-related pollution and make certain that CAFOs do their share.
The beautiful and valuable Great Lakes, Mississippi-Missouri River Basin, and Columbia River watershed - indeed, any area with an increasing concentration of large animal feeding operations - should learn from the bay's experience. Wherever CAFOs exist, tools must be made available to keep waste from closing shellfish beds, limiting recreational opportunities, or fueling devastating algae blooms.
Permits under the federal Clean Water Act remain the single most important resource for solving such problems, but they have been used ineffectively for CAFOs in the Chesapeake region and across the country. However, if policymakers in the bay region and their counterparts elsewhere are really serious about "pollution diets" to save our most treasured waters, that must change.
The current rules require an insufficient fraction of the large animal agriculture facilities in the Chesapeake and other locations around the country to hold Clean Water Act permits, inhibiting manure management and oversight. While the pending Chesapeake rule will promise some improvement, regulators nationwide must use this model to reduce the size thresholds for classifying operations as CAFOs, mandating improved waste management from these facilities. According to today's law, for example, a chicken-raising operation can house up to 124,999 birds at a time (producing 10,125 cubic feet of litter each year) without identifying itself as a CAFO. That is too many animals and too much manure to avoid serious controls on waste disposal.
The current federal rules also ignore any waste that is transported away from these facilities. That's another giant loophole that must be closed.
Furthermore, any new rules should emphasize shared responsibility for manure. People we used to think of as farmers, now termed "growers" by large meat processing corporations, presently bear sole responsibility for waste disposal. Yet, the only parts of meat production they own are the land and labor - not the animals generating the manure. For poultry, the large contracting corporations own the birds and dictate the terms of how these animals are managed, including the type of feed and veterinary care they receive. This is increasingly the case for hog production as well, and shared responsibility is clearly necessary.
If the pattern of missed deadlines for Chesapeake Bay cleanup is ever to be broken, immediate action is the only choice. CAFOs should follow the same accountability measures for pollution that are applied to countless other businesses and households throughout a watershed. If we care about our nation's threatened rivers, lakes, and estuaries across the country, it's time to demand the same environmental improvements for CAFOs.