Friday, September 18, 2009

Acting on water safety

What do you do when the water you drink is contaminated? When it is loaded with parasites, bacteria, and viruses that cause ear infections and diarrhea? What do you do when the likely source of those parasites comes from your neighbors' livelihoods? How do you protect yourself, your family, and your community?

These are some of the questions facing the people of Morrison, Wisconsin, a big dairy-producer in northeastern Wisconsin. As the New York Times reports today, "All it took was an early thaw for the drinking water here to become unsafe."

In brief, the story reports that very large dairy farms have been dumping in excess of 26,000,000 pounds of cow manure on their land every year (roughly the weight of 30 fully loaded modern Boeing 747s at takeoff) as well as "slaughterhouse waste and treated sewage." Some of that acts as fertilizer but with early thaws, runoff, and natural seepage into groundwater, the water table, watersheds, and ground wells have been heavily contaminated by fecal born parasites that prompted Lisa Barnard to say, “Sometimes it smells like a barn coming out of the faucet."And all of this has come to pass because of a lack of regulation and enforcement.

The story details where and how the 1972 Clean Water Act's jurisdiction and enforcement has fallen short, especially on non-point sources of water pollution. Farmers have failed to file paperwork when they should and Bush administration rules have made huge farms (700+ cows) self-regulating. In other huge livestock operations, residents and officials have gone after enormous chicken, hog, and cattle operations but with only limited success. In short (and this is my read on it) the enormous profits that can be gleaned in these industrial factory farm operations have made the "business as usual" model one that, very simply put, maximizes production, maximizes profits for a very small group of corporations and their investors, and relegates the social and ecological consequences to the nether regions. They are, as economists call them, externalities that have been ignored at the expense of human welfare, freshwater cleanliness, watershed integrity, and the constellation of ecosystems connected to these farms.

Much of the regulation has been crafted by people interested in maximizing profit and production as it has been in many other areas. This is no surprise. The discussion of regulation at the end of the Times article leaves something out completely. There is NO way to safely and ethically dispose of all of the manure that the American production of meat and milk necessarily creates. The sheer volume creates water pollution because it must go somewhere and that somewhere is always connected to a water table. I doubt that all of the regulation in the world of how they dispose of this waste can do anything. The problem lies in the interconnected subsidies in the whole agricultural industry that creates these megafarms.

We are paying so little for things that are actually very expensive and the side effects - i.e. agricultural waste runoff - are externally very expensive as well. Most awfully of all, they defile the commons; they destroy the most basic common goods - breathable air, potable water, and rich soil.

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