by Chris Wilke

Do you every wonder what the largest source of pollution is? At Puget Soundkeeper we get asked this question all the time.

There are lots of ways to answer this question.

But nationwide, the pollution that has the biggest impact on rivers and streams is agricultural pollution. Simply put, there are more waterways around the country that don’t meet swimmable, fishable and drinkable standards set forth in the Clean Water Act due to polluted agricultural runoff than anything else. When these standards are not met it’s serious. It means fish die or get sick, and it means people can get sick if they don’t take steps to avoid the water.

What does agricultural pollution look like? Sometimes it’s easily visible—manure floating in the water, crumbling streambanks where livestock wade through, or brown water flowing from over-fertilized fields to a nearby creek. Other types of pollution are less easy to spot. Manure leaking into groundwater, for example, which often endangers the wells that local communities rely on as a drinking water supply. Or invisible pesticides rinsed from plants by rain, placing a toxic burden on salmon trying to spawn.

Manure used as fertilizer runs off a flooded field into a roadside ditch.

The most acute pollution comes from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs, where animals are packed together in barns and feedlots, standing in their own waste rather than grazing in an open field. An operation with a thousand cows creates roughly 250,000 pounds of manure a day, most of it stored in giant pits called manure lagoons. Properly managed, this waste can be a valuable fertilizer to help grow crops. But the excess has to go somewhere. When supply exceeds demand, or when applied incorrectly, the results can be disastrous for our waterways. The vast majority of manure lagoons in Washington are unlined and are proven to leak into groundwater, which can poison drinking water resources with nitrates.

The impacts are borne by citizens and wildlife. Rivers and streams are rendered unsafe, and swimming beaches closed as a result of contamination by bacteria like fecal coliform and E. coli. Nitrate-contaminated drinking water wells are a serious health concern, especially for infants and young children. Shellfish contamination is also a severe issue in saltwater bays near agricultural areas. In Samish Bay and Portage Bay, the Department of Health has downgraded or closed shellfish beds due to fecal contamination.

An aerial view of manure lagoons used to hold excess waste.

Many farmers are making great strides and doing the right thing. I’ve personally met dairy farmers doing their best to manage manure responsibly and protect shared waters, who understand that it is exponentially harder to reverse the damage done by pollution than to prevent it from happening in the first place.

But the fact is that agricultural pollution remains severely under-regulated in our state. The industry’s powerful state and federal lobby pressures local regulators, stalling pollution prevention measures even as the industry becomes larger, more consolidated and more commodity-driven. When the Department of Ecology lets a statewide pollution discharge permit for CAFOs remain expired for five years, or when it gives the industry a pass through weak regulations or non-existent enforcement, it sets an uneven playing field and dis-incentivizes progress by those seeking to do the right thing.

It’s a challenge Soundkeeper has faced, and fought against, for a long time. Now, after years of foot-dragging, Washington has a draft pollution discharge permit for CAFOs, regulating these major dischargers just like every other polluting industry.

The bad news: that permit caves in almost every way to the demands of the agricultural lobby, ignoring sound science and the current desperate state of Puget Sound waters.

Read Soundkeeper’s comments on the draft CAFO permit.

The system as it stands is broken. What we have to overcome is not just the pollution flowing into our waters. It’s the belief that protecting our natural resources is not a shared responsibility.

When the Department of Ecology acts on a complaint and issues a warning or an enforcement order, they face threats of cutbacks from lawmakers under the heavy influence of the agricultural lobby. When the EPA funds an educational website that focuses on fact-based solutions, the EPA administrator Gina McCarthy is called before the US Senate to explain why she is “attacking farmers”. She backs down and apologizes even though the website is there to promote solutions.

But when these political fights take over, communities that care about clean water lose. Farmers lose too, especially those trying to do the right thing. And our waterways lose. The areas hardest hit in Puget Sound are some of our most important salmon rivers: the Skagit, the Stillaguamish the Nooksack. What was once one of the most productive salmon fisheries spirals further into oblivion.

A farmer spreads manure on a field.

Fortunately we have an opportunity to make a difference. A strong CAFO permit is a step in the right direction.

The Clean Water Act requires that any permit issued be protective of water quality and ensure that swimmable, fishable and drinkable standards are protected. Best available technology must be implemented to the maximum extent practicable . And, citizens must have access to the process and a venue to give comments before rules are finalized.

The current draft CAFO permit falls far short of what is needed to protect our streams, rivers, bays and drinking water from pollution. Soundkeeper and our allies will work to strengthen it before it becomes final. Add your voice: tell the Department of Ecology to protect Washington communities.