When British artist Mishka Henner was looking through satellite photographs of the Texas landscape, he kept finding huge, brown pools of water. The pools, as he discovered, were the toilets of the beef industry, waste lagoons where all the feces and urine of factory farmed cows is funneled. Texas cow farms captured the British art world with "Feedlots," Henner's photography series of nothing but Texas feedlot ponds. The most famous image, shared all over the Internet, is the gigantic, brownish-red waste lagoon next to Coronado Feeders, a feedlot in Dalhart.
There are real reasons to be disgusted with waste lagoons, besides the fact that they're filled with poop and give British artists more excuses to ridicule Texas. The lagoons will sometimes overflow or leak, eventually winding up in bodies of water whose ecosystems can't deal with all that cow crap. And when the waste is used as fertilizer, it still finds its way into water supplies.
"Yet in spite of the huge amounts of animal wastes that factory farms produce," gripes the Natural Resources Defense Council, "they have largely escaped pollution regulations."
Ohio is the current animal waste cautionary tale for the rest of the United States. Every summer, a thick, toxic coat of algae grows on Lake Erie. It got so bad last week that the mayor of Toledo implemented a two-day ban on drinking municipal tap water.
The algae was fed by phosphorus, which comes from fertilizer and manure running off into the water. Experts for years had warned that the phosphorus pollution was causing the algae problem to gradually worsen. "The whole drinking-water community has been raising these issues, and so far we haven't seen a viable response," the Toledo commissioner of public utilities told The New York Times this week.
After years of talking about the problem, the federal government is working on a proposal to do something about it. The EPA is taking comments on an expansion to the Clean Water Act that would require industries to get a permit before dumping anything into wetlands near rivers and seasonal waterways, giving protection to creeks even when they're dry. The idea with the new rule is that those smaller, seasonal bodies of water eventually connect with the large lakes, in addition to supporting year-round animal habitats, so they should be protected just the same.
This could limit the number of places where it's OK to dump or accidentally leak crap, both the literal and figurative kind. The beef industry is very worried. "Ultimately, what we think they've done here is to expand their jurisdiction to every wet spot in the country," a National Cattlemen's Beef Association warns Texas feeders in an industry newsletter. The association is also concerned "that the EPA's philosophy seems to be that everything is somehow connected," a problematic idea for anyone who'd like to pretend that they live in a bubble.
In Texas, where animal waste production exceeds 153 million tons annually, the freak-out has been fittingly dramatic. The Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association sent out a press release this week describing the EPA's water regulations as "the largest land grab in history."
"If adopted, the new rule would not be good for the Texas cattle industry," warns the association. The cattlemen describe an inhumane permitting process:
For the first time, certain ditches would be defined as jurisdictional tributaries under Clean Water Act programs. Additionally, conservation activities not complying with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) practice standards would be required to have a 404 dredge-and-fill permit.
This means you would be subject to additional permitting requirements for applying pesticides, grazing cattle, conducting construction projects and performing other routine maintenance on your land.
Proponents of the the rule note it exempts artificial lakes used by the agriculture industry, and the EPA is trying to assure all the agriculture groups that the new rule will "provide greater clarity and certainty to farmers."
Whether seasonal waterways are protected has been unclear after a few Supreme Court rulings in 2001 that limited the authority of the Clean Water Act. And in Texas, a federal court in 2000 ruled that Chevron wasn't liable under the Clean Water Act for a pipeline spill that sent 126,000 gallons of oil into a creek, because no water was flowing in the creek at the time of the spill. If that had happened under the proposed newer Clean Water Act, Chevron would probably have had to pay some fines and then continue enjoy being Chevron.