Great Lakes Manure Conference: Agriculture Runoff and Lake Erie

On May 1-2, 2024, FLOW policy director Carolan Sonderegger and legal director Carrie La Seur attended the Great Lakes Manure Conference in Toledo, Ohio. The conference was an opportunity to tour the Maumee River, and learn from experts about legal, environmental, and public health issues posed by Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Below, Carolan shares her learnings and reflections from the conference:

On the first day of the Great Lakes Manure Conference in Toledo, attendees joined a bus tour of local CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) and a boat tour of the Maumee River, which provided ample room for networking and knowledge exchange. During the boat tour, we were able to see several grain silo facilities alongside the river.

One of the major highlights of the tour was the Glass City River Wall, which happens to be the largest mural in the United States (pictured above). The mural is not just a beautiful sight to behold; it is also an inspiration and a tribute to the local community’s resilience and determination to seek clean water and better nutrition for people worldwide. The mural depicts the historical significance of the indigenous peoples who lived and farmed along Ohio rivers for thousands of years, a testament to their enduring spirit in the face of environmental challenges.

The Maumee River is one of the United States’ largest Areas of Concern (AOC) – areas that have experienced environmental degradation. The river has been a hotspot of industrial and municipal development for almost 200 years. Due to agriculture runoff, unregulated waste disposal, industrial contamination, combined sewer overflows, and disposal of dredged materials, the Maumee River is the largest system emptying contaminants into Lake Erie.

In the Ottawa River, one of several embedded watersheds, high levels of PCBs and other contaminants led to a no-contact advisory for over 25 years, which was finally lifted in 2018. Human activities have resulted in the loss of more than 90% of Northwest Ohio’s wetlands, including the Toussaint Wildlife Area, a historic wetland. The contamination led to a restriction on fish and wildlife consumption until only recently, which was lifted in August of 2022. Many community members were observed fishing for sustenance along the banks, despite the fish consumption advisory recommending no more than one meal per week.

As seen in the picture above, the Maumee River appears to be vastly different from the waters and rivers of Northern Michigan. In contrast to our clear blue Niibii (water), the Maumee River resembled a dark and murky likeness to chocolate milk due to an abundance of suspended sediment. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been collaborating with federal, state, and local partners to carry out remediation and restoration work in the region to tackle the existing beneficial use impairments (BUIs) – which identify significant environmental degradation. Although much work remains to be done, significant progress has been made on contaminated sediment remediation and habitat restoration efforts. Although turbidity is a water quality indicator, it is not an overarching testament to the river’s rehabilitation.

On the second day of the conference, we convened at the University of Toledo’s Lake Erie Center. We were privileged to hear from a diverse group of experts, including Kathy Martin, a civil engineer with over 25 years of experience in CAFOs; Fritz Byer, a Harvard Law graduate with over 35 years of practice; and others from Food and Water Watch, Waterkeeper Alliance, USDA/NRCS, and CAFO neighbors. The conference covered crucial topics, such as CAFO permitting (or lack thereof), manure digesters, CAFO history and economics, and the Nutrients Farm Bill. These discussions provided valuable insights into the current state of environmental conservation and the actions needed to address the issues.

Some speakers described the inconsistency in CAFO regulation from state to state in the Great Lakes basin, which aggravates cross-border cleanup challenges. Others addressed public health threats caused by CAFO waste, including multi-drug-resistant bacteria and avian flu, which can both spread to humans. University of Missouri Professor Emeritus of Agricultural Economics John Ikerd described the economics of CAFOs. It actually costs less to raise an animal on a traditional, diversified farm than in a CAFO, but CAFOs raise such large numbers of animals that smaller operations can’t compete on price.

Attorneys brought a legal perspective on current challenges to CAFOs, and how quickly the industry pivots to dodge regulation and enforcement. It is clear that we need a broad, national approach to reforming food systems, to restore healthy relationships among humans, animals, land, and water. This is FLOW’s vision.

3 comments on “Great Lakes Manure Conference: Agriculture Runoff and Lake Erie

  1. Valerie Schey on

    Thank you for shining a light on the issue of agricultural runoff and water pollution. From a legislative policy perspective, there has not been enough done to educate the general public on this issue.

    • Aaron Morrison on

      You are correct Valerie. The sad part is that they have know for decades all about the harmful effects of nutrient rich runoff, but have failed to control the cause. Mostly because they thought it wasn’t that big a deal and that there was value in distributing animal waste on fields, and not treating it before releasing to the waterways. Another reason was the costs involved. Good news is the cost to treat are drastically reduced now, so the least cost to the public is to treat the waste where it is produced, not after it has reached the waterways. Cheers

  2. Aaron Morrison on

    This is a great article! As scary as it sounds it is very truthful and accurate. To bring reality to the front even more, we treat our human waste for the most part before it enters our waterways, either by Treatment Plants or Lagoon Systems or by Septic Tanks, and it is all because we recognize we prevent pollution in our water by doing so. Now it is estimated (by those in the know) that the waste produced by animals grown for food each year, is I believe 110 to 120 times the waste produced by every man woman and child in America each year. Think about that. To clarify… the vast majority of the animal waste is not treated or even regulated. UNTIL that changes the waters will get worse with each passing year until they are beyond being saved! Millions of citizens are affected by closed beaches, dead zones, toxic Algae Blooms, airborne toxins, dead pets, reduced property values, lost income from tourism, higher taxes to pay for costly drinking water treatment plants, local wells polluted, and the list goes on and on. This is a solvable problem… Cheers


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