It’s no surprise that half of the lakes and streams in southern Minnesota are too polluted for recreational activities (“So. Minn. water crises rises,” April 30). My parents, lifelong farmers in Dodge County in southeastern Minnesota, have been battling the county and a feedlot operator this past year in response to the installation of the 11th hog building within a 3-mile radius of our family farm. This single factory farm sits on just 6 acres of non-homesteaded bare land that lies at the headwaters of the Cedar River. Just half a mile from the Trom family farm that has been in our family for nearly 100 years, it will produce manure equivalent to a human population of more than 7,000 people.
During the past year, my family has learned firsthand the failings of county officials and feedlot operators to address the environmental impact of factory farms. Easy permitting of these projects is par for the course in Dodge County. The Dodge County Planning Commission, aka “the feedlot commission” — consisting of seven members, six of whom are registered feedlot operators — quickly approved the controversial factory farm near my parents’ farm a second time in December 2014, following vacation of the first conditional-use permit by a district judge.
It was time to take action — legal action. My parents filed a second lawsuit in January 2015, alleging bias, conflict of interest, failure to ensure that the feedlot operator has an adequate manure-management plan in place to protect the environment from possible surface and/or groundwater contamination, and other claims.
It was also time to take action — political action. A group of local citizens formed a grass-roots organization, Dodge County Concerned Citizens. The group is committed to clean air, land and water and has gathered extensive data from federal, state and local sources — data that illustrate alarming trends — showing that Minnesota groundwater is at risk of overuse and contamination.
Dodge County serves as an example of the environmental problems plaguing rural Minnesota. Not only is there a failure on the part of county officials to manage the use of groundwater, there is a failure to manage the manure generated from these feedlot operations. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) records indicate that only six of the 234 registered feedlot operators in the county possess a water-appropriations permit. Not surprisingly, there are several reports of wells going dry in the county. Also, recent data obtained from Dodge County show that only 37 of these 234 feedlots have manure-management plans on file with the county.
Minnesota needs to do more. Did you know that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) estimates that there are more than 18,000 registered feedlots in operation in the state? Yet Big Ag is pressing for more and bigger feedlots. Given the huge number, the MPCA estimates that the amount of manure generated by livestock in Minnesota is equivalent to a human population of about 50 million people. That’s untreated, liquid animal manure chock full of nitrogen, phosphorus, E. coli bacteria and other contaminants that threaten our surface water and groundwater.
Statewide, the DNR reports that groundwater use has increased 35 percent over the last 25 years — about 3 billion gallons per year on average. A single feedlot, such as the one near my parents’ farm, will draw an estimated 3.5 million gallons of water per year. No wonder we are seeing depletion of our precious groundwater.
Not only do data from the MPCA indicate that conditions in southern Minnesota watersheds are worsening, they also show that the highest concentration of concentrated animal feeding operations is in the southern part of the state. These are large facilities that are capable of holding 1,000 or more animal units and that require federal permits to operate. It’s no surprise that nitrates, phosphorus and E. coli are showing up in southern Minnesota streams and lakes.
But this is only part of the story. Data obtained from the MPCA do not include county feedlot programs that are responsible for the permitting and oversight of feedlots with fewer than 1,000 animal units. Most feedlots in Minnesota are operated under the Delegated County program — an arrangement between the MPCA and 53 rural Minnesota counties. For example, in Dodge County, the total number of animal units actually exceeds 83,000 (including both federally permitted concentrated animal feeding operations and locally permitted feedlots under the Delegated County program), which equates to a human manure equivalency exceeding 830,000 people.
While Dodge County Concerned Citizens certainly commends Gov. Mark Dayton’s efforts to increase the buffer zones along Minnesota’s waterways, we have to do more. While the buffer zones address the effect of too many contaminants, this proposal does not address the cause. So, if you want to stop the risk of overuse and contamination of groundwater in Minnesota, it’s time to connect the dots and stop constructing feedlots.
Sonja Trom Eayrs lives in Maple Grove. She wrote this article on behalf of Dodge County Concerned Citizens.