A River of Manure: CAFO Sewage Runoff Threatens Water Systems

Guest author Pam Taylor is a volunteer with Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan. Taylor’s family came to Lenawee County, Michigan in 1837 to farm, and some family members are still farming there. She and her brother own a farm that’s been in her family for 117 years, where she lived and raised sheep and chickens and grew vegetables, fruits, and flowers. After spending years in the business world, she became a teacher and taught business and mathematics at Adrian Public Schools and as an adjunct at local colleges. 


When used in a sanitation context, it’s anything you flush down your toilet. It’s bodily-function, gut waste. It has much higher levels of contamination than graywater, which is water from showering or washing.

When blackwater comes from 3,500 cows in a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) lagoon-cesspit and runs off the field where it’s been dumped, it looks like this:

Raw CAFO sewage runoff into dry ditch from field, heading toward federally-protected wetland. Lenawee County, Western Lake Erie Basin. June 2, 2023.

Volunteers for Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan (ECCSCM) captured the images in this story in early June, 2023. ECCSCM has been tracking water pollution from 13 CAFOs like this one for over 20 years.

A CAFO is a livestock operation on an industrial scale, holding hundreds or even thousands of animals in a confined space. CAFOs produce a staggering amount of fecal waste – which has to go somewhere.

That somewhere is often on top of fields (“field application”), where it is sprayed in amounts far surpassing what would be a typical fertilizer application. The blackwater runoff from these fields, as well as the windblown fecal particulates, can be dangerous – and even deadly.

The second day of tanker fan-spraying liquid livestock sewage on dry field, with fecal particulates and dust blowing everywhere. Lenawee County, Western Lake Erie Basin. June 1, 2023.

Fortunately, this time, the contractor involved brought in a pump and heavy equipment and scraped the blackwater out of the ditch before it reached the federally-protected wetland. This was day three of a field application that lasted nearly two weeks. 

For decades, this 200-acre field was maintained as grassland under the federal Conservation Reserve Program. It was an important nesting site and home to a variety of bird and pollinator species – until a few years ago. 

There’s a county drain running across this field – part of which was once an open, tree-lined ditch, and part subsurface tile – where buried pipe carries this liquid sewage to open water in the same way a city sewer carries municipal sewage to a wastewater treatment plant. There’s an old well at the edge of this field, and catch basins that collect stormwater and funnel liquid from the surface into these tile pipes. The pipes, in turn, transport the liquids under roads, then into connected wetlands and waterways  that eventually flow into Lake Erie downstream.

Raw livestock sewage ponding in a now-saturated corner of same application field, near old groundwater well and catch basin, path to blackwater runoff into dry ditch. Lenawee County, Western Lake Erie Basin. June 2, 2023.

We at ECCSCM had to learn about CAFO waste and take on the responsibility for testing and documentation because the State of Michigan and its environmental permitting and enforcement agency, EGLE and its predecessors, have failed in their responsibility to protect Michigan’s waters.

On June 2, 2023 around noon, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) was notified by phone call about the CAFO sewage runoff. By the time EGLE sent a staff member out later that afternoon, the contractor had scraped the ditch and most of the workers had left for the day. 

As the days passed and dumping continued, ECCSCM continued to document places where this waste could enter the tile drainage systems. We also asked EGLE to collect and analyze samples at certain places where these tiles empty into streams. This wasn’t the first time there was a major runoff incident from this field.

EGLE never collected any samples, and only came back once (that we know of) to do a visual inspection. The official response was that the water in the ditches was rusty brown due to iron, and that local drain commission workers reported the same thing: no E. coli samples were taken because staff could find no place where a discharge was entering the waters of the state. 

But the Michigan CAFO Clean Water Act permit language says the waste is supposed to stay on the field. It doesn’t matter if it enters the waters of the state or not. 

EGLE also maintained that while it would have been great if the farm notified EGLE of the runoff, the action taken was what EGLE would have recommended. EGLE considered the incident closed. Bottom line, EGLE has no earthly idea what actually happened, because EGLE never properly followed through at the right time.

ECCSCM has been testing the water at sites like this for 20-plus years because we’ve heard all these same excuses by EGLE and its predecessors in response to incidents like this: it’s tannins, it’s iron, it’s cherries. The water here does have iron in it and, sometimes, tannins. Often, we find astronomically high E. coli counts and excess nutrients (that cause algal blooms) in the surface water coming from these fields, whether the water is rust-colored or crystal clear and odorless. 

After we started testing for E. coli, the excuses became more creative – it’s raccoons, it’s geese, it’s deer. So we started DNA testing for the source species, and we found cattle, swine, and human DNA in our Bacteroides samples. (Bacteroides is a fecal contaminant like E. coli, but easier to accurately extract DNA from.)  While it’s natural to find some DNA from wildlife, including aquatic animals, in streams, there should never be human or domesticated livestock DNA in this water. The excuses given by EGLE for not properly collecting and analyzing samples would fill an encyclopedia.

The above example is just one from the recent past; there are several that are equally bad. The pattern is clear: 

  • failure of state officials to do a site visit immediately
  • failure to take samples, or take samples correctly
  • samples getting lost or damaged
  • incident investigation reports not written for over a year
  • kid-glove handling for these farms is the rule, not the exception.

Many of these same CAFOs are Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP)-verified, or get federal taxpayer subsidies.

Draglining liquid livestock sewage on the same dry field, at the same time that raw CAFO sewage was running off into the dry ditch. Lenawee County, Western Lake Erie Basin. June 2, 2023.

We’ve come full circle, back to where we were in 1999. If the state doesn’t investigate, nothing happened. If the state doesn’t test, there’s nothing to enforce. The loopholes in the current Michigan CAFO permit are bad enough, and failure to enforce it – as in this case – means that these farms often do whatever they want. Our CAFOs here in south central Michigan are no better and no worse than anywhere else in Michigan. It’s just that here, somebody’s watching.

Michigan’s CAFO permit requirements for factory farms are revised every five years. In 2020, EGLE finally took baby steps, insufficient as they were, and issued a permit that closed some of the gaping loopholes that enable pollution from permitted CAFOs. Immediately, Farm Bureau and most of Michigan’s permitted CAFOs filed a challenge to this permit, along with two other lawsuits. Instead of putting the new permit with its protections for waters that EPA lists as impaired waters into effect and letting the legal actions run their course, EGLE caved to Farm Bureau pressure. 

Meanwhile, Farm Bureau and agriculture lobbyists have been blanketing Michigan’s legislators with their standard, world-class marketing campaign that portrays them as victims of oppressive regulation. All so that these farms – which couldn’t exist without massive taxpayer subsidies and so-called ‘best management practices’ that aren’t an adequate substitute for wastewater treatment – can continue to send their city-sized loads of untreated livestock sewage downstream.

The inadequate permit requirements combined with the failure to enforce is a double hit.

Our message to Michigan’s elected officials in the executive and legislative branches: Ignore the perpetual Farm Bureau swarm. Take a look at Michigan’s CAFO map, then the E. coli and nutrient Total Daily Maximum Loads (TMDLs), and this summer’s harmful algal blooms. This is a public health crisis. 

Remember your job and your responsibility, under the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act (NREPA) and the Michigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA), to protect Michigan’s waters. Make EGLE’s CAFO permitting and enforcement staffs – the environmental cops – do the job that Michigan hasn’t done for over 20 years. We’re asking you to think less about personal politics, and more about the long-term future of these Great Lakes and everything living here. That’s your real legacy.

Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan (ECCSCM) is a local, grassroots group formed in 1999 to educate the public and public agencies about the health risks and environmental damage industrial livestock operations have brought to our local watersheds and to advocate for responsible, environmentally sustainable farm practices. They document environmental violations by confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in south central Michigan, disseminate observations and monitoring data from many local testing sites, and educate and inform the public and government agencies about their findings.

One comment on “A River of Manure: CAFO Sewage Runoff Threatens Water Systems

  1. Janet Ryan on

    Very informative article. Thanks, Pam for the piece and the time it took to put it together.
    Keep getting the word out.


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