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Politics and Fishing - The CAFO Example

It is probably going to be pretty hard to thread the needle here but I feel compelled to make a (reasonably) decent attempt at it. I see a lot of, "I want to keep politics out of fishing" and other similar statements and I totally get it. I will argue that it really can not be done as clean water, public access, land use, and funding for management of important issues like habitat, water quality, fish passage, and others are political. Sorry, they simply are.

Politics are often ugly and rarely have they been uglier than they currently are. Politics are not something I am terribly interested in being involved in. I am happy that there are people much more interested and skilled in the art of politicking than I am. Politics do not have to be adversarial, can be productive, and can be about compromise and tradeoffs. It can be about bringing people together to do what is right. Maybe we will see that again some day.

There are three major issues with conservation issues that immediately come to my mind in a quick first glance at the issue. First, "wars" over conservation issues are never really won. We can delay problems but we do not really prevent them. The Gogebic Taconite Mine in northern Wisconsin's Gogebic range is currently "dead", but there is nothing to keep it from springing up again - and it will. You only have to lose one battle to have lost that war. Once the area is mined, it is forever changed. Which leads to the second point, once it is gone, you never really get it back, at least not without very significant effort. Yes, as we have seen with stream improvement, restoration, manipulation, or whatever you want to call it; we can improve the fishing, in some cases bring streams back "from the dead" or at least the nearly dead. But that happens only at great effort and cost and only with other things in place - improved land use, reduction of the issues that caused degradation in the first place, etc. - that allow improvements to occur. And while it is better, it is not restored to what it was. And there are no guarantees what the results of that expense and effort will be.

Lastly, the most cynical of the statements deserves its own paragraph - conservation groups generally lack the one thing that really draws in interests of politicians, MONEY. That, said, I do not think it has to be that way. Wisconsin sold over 800,000 deer hunting licenses and over 1.3 million fishing licenses in 2020. Add to that those interested in bird watching, prairies, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, and other outdoor activities that require an environment that supports those activities and there is a significant economy that requires an environment that can support those activities. Wisconsin's tourism industry brings over $22 billion a year to the Wisconsin economy. Trout fishing in the Driftless Area was a $1.6 billion "industry" in 2016, a half-a-billion dollar increase from 2008. This is all to show that there is a significant - and renewable - "industry" around fishing. I think I would re-write the cynical topic sentence to state that conservation groups lack of influence may be more than anything due to a lack coordination. Political influence - a necessity - comes with money and coordination.

Grandad's Bluff
The view from Grandad's Bluff in La Crosse, one of the city's most popular locations.

Threats to Wisconsin trout streams are manyfold but without question, agriculture is the predominant land use in much of Wisconsin and the most significant source of environmental degradation. Certainly in part of Wisconsin, other issues are of greater significance - forestry practices, water withdrawal, fish passage, impervious surfaces from development, climate change, etc. And added to current issues is historic environmental degradation that still affect our trout streams. The Cutover - a period where Wisconsin's forests were nearly all harvested - has long-lived effects as do historic agricultural practices. Streams have been widened, straightened, and obstacles (habitat) removed. In the Driftless Area, cultural sedimentation has transformed the valleys, forever altering them. And cities and infrastructure impacts are widespread. The larger point, today's streams exist in a landscape that is both current and historic.

The CAFO Example

In keeping with my desire to keep these posts under 10 minutes, preferably shorter, we will keep this to one of the great issues of the day in much of Wisconsin, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO) and the environmental and political issues around these "factory farms". I choose CAFOs as they are growing in number, there are significant political and social issues surrounding CAFOs, and it is an issue I am familiar with.

Small, Driftless Area farm
A small farm in the Driftless - but here and elsewhere, farms are getting larger

Let's start with some facts - then a few opinions - to set the scene. The number of CAFOs in Wisconsin has increased every year since 2005 and 90% of these are dairy farms (source). The average farm in Wisconsin is getting larger which most contribute to "economy of scale", the idea that large farms are more efficient. This is certainly not a new idea. Earl Butz was among the first in power to advocate the "get big or get out" idea and it is an idea that continues today (Source). CAFO's comprised about 3.5% of our state's dairy farms but a whooping 25% of the cows in the state are on these farms (source). This will maybe be an unpopular opinion for many but CAFOs are not going away. In fact, the data show they are only more likely to increase in number and their significance.

Figure - number of CAFOs in Wisconsin
The number of CAFOs in Wisconsin is growing rather steadily by about 13 per farms per year on average.

There are significant environmental issues associated with agriculture that are often seen as exponentially larger as farm size - and the number of animal units - increases. My quick analysis highlights three significant issues:

  • Dealing with animal waste

  • Water withdrawals

  • Well contamination

Dealing with Animal Waste

The idea is pretty simple; as there are more animals living, eating, drinking, and producing waste in higher densities, the potential for serious impacts due to large concentrations of animals increases. To put it in perspective, twenty dairy cows produce the solid waste of approximately 1,000 people (source). This means that a CAFO with 1,000 cows (the number required to come under CAFO regulations) produce the solid waste of a city of 50,000 people. Unlike human waste that is treated in wastewater treatment facilities, animal wastes are stored for potentially long periods of time before being spread over the landscape as fertilizer. With this storage, transport, and spreading comes the possibility for significant fish kills as we have seen in the past (an example). Although the number of fish kills has decreased - thanks largely to efforts that required a good bit of politicking - fish kills are still a great concern as evidenced by recent kills in the state.

Water Withdrawals and High Capacity Wells

The removal of groundwater in significant quantities is a significant issue associated with CAFOs, particularly when the are concentrated over a relatively small geographic area. Quite simply, a thousand or more cows on one farm are going to require a lot of water for drinking, cleaning, and irrigation (in some cases). Although not specifically CAFO related, the Little Plover River demonstrates the worst case scenario. After being drawn dry, the stream is making its comeback from years of degradation thanks to, yes, some politics. As an example to support an earlier point that recovery from environmental degradation is imperfect and expensive, in 2018, more than $2.6 million were dedicated to restoring water to the Little Plover River without a guarantee of success.

Wisconsin has some regulations addressing groundwater withdrawals, particularly in proximity to trout stream because they exist only because of groundwater inputs. From Christina Westerberg writing in, Wisconsin Lawyer,

The DNR’s high-capacity well permitting authority is under Wis. Stat. section 281.34 and specifically requires the agency to conduct an environmental review for wells located within 1,200 feet of a trout stream or outstanding or exceptional resource waters, wells that remove most of the water from a basin, or wells that could significantly affect a stream. The DNR may deny or place conditions on wells that would affect these areas and on wells that would impair a public water supply. Wells are also subject to construction, location, and other requirements under the Wisconsin Administrative Code.

This ruling in the Lake Beulah case is the law of the land. Administration of it has been far from perfect but it is a great example of Trout Unlimited working with other conservation groups to do something - quite behind the scenes - to improve or at least help preserve trout fishing in the state. It is also an example of how diverse conservation organizations need to come together to have a larger impact. Not one of the groups involved could have likely achieved this on their own.

To see the growth of high capacity wells over time:

Groundwater and Well Contamination

For many Wisconsinites, the greatest source of consternation related to CAFOs are the impacts that they can - and have - had on groundwater quality. Unless you have spent the past number of years under a rock, you are probably familiar with Kewaunee County's issues with well contamination. Or you followed the report from southwestern Wisconsin groundwater study that found widespread well contamination. Or you have heard of the Wisconsin Groundwater Coordinating Council, the Wisconsin governor and legislature's response to these issues.

The issue is pretty clear, once nitrate (source - may require subscription), atrazine (source), fecal waste, and other pollutants reach the groundwater, they tend to stay there and they can have significant impacts on human health. The concern of people living in agricultural areas is pretty simple to me. Polluters benefit because they do not pay many of the costs of environmental degradation but they benefit by polluting our environment while we pay for it. The classic, "Tragedy of the Commons". Or more simply stated, "why should I have to pay to buy clean drinking water when you contaminated my well?!"

Environmental Arguments in Favor of CAFOs

You may well recognize that the three above issues are NOT only associated with only CAFOs but are broader agricultural issues. The effects of manure, fish kills, water withdrawals, groundwater contamination, and other agricultural issues are not only associated with CAFOs. There is an argument to be made that because CAFOs are better regulated, they are better able to protect the environment against many of the environmental impacts of agriculture. By being permitted as a CAFO, these farms have to meet oversight and self-reporting requirements that are not required of smaller farms. This should prevent against some of the sources of environmental degradation by agriculture.

Figure - ratio of CAFOs / field staff
Oversight of CAFOs has not kept up with the approval rate of CAFOs.

You may be sensing my skepticism as the number of CAFOs has increased far faster than has their oversight (source). Additionally, the idea that CAFO's "pay their own way" has not been shown to be true. One could argue that the reason that the promise of CAFOs being good for the environment has not been met is purely political.

What We Can Do, Politically

To be completely honest, CAFOs are an issue that as I have dug deeper into and gathered more information, I have wavered somewhere between totally hopeless and slightly hopeful that real inroads can be made to better protect against the environmental impacts that CAFOs can have and make the arguments in favor of CAFOs a reality. I do not disagree that CAFOs - in a more perfect world can both supply the world with food and be a way to protect the environment. However, it is quite evident that the rules are written to benefit large farms and to make not getting a permit, having that permit not renewed, or having a permit get revoked are nearly impossible.

Brown Trout
I needed to break up all that text - look at the pretty fish!

Quite simply, CAFOs are going to continue to increase in the state. Thinking that Trout Unlimited or any coalition of groups is going to eliminate CAFOs in the state is "magical thinking". What we CAN do is we can work together to get laws changed and to have the promises of CAFOs environmental safeguards be upheld.

  1. Enforcement - there are two significant issues with enforcement. First, there are not enough field staff to oversee the growing number of CAFOs in the state. Second, the Department of Justice needs to act on referrals from the Wisconsin DNR when there are fish kills and other environmental problems from CAFOs and other farms. Wild Rose Dairy, recently re-permitted for their CAFO operation, still has two manure spills, dating back to 2017 where fines have not been assessed. We should not be expected to bear the costs of their pollution.

  2. Permitting Process - A non-point discharge elimination system (NPDES) permit has never not been approved (WDNR statement is the approval of PERMIT No. WI-0059072-04-0 - Wild Rose Dairy LLC). Certainly the argument that the permitting process is there to ensure that applicants are required to meet stringent standards does hold some water. Environmental groups, through the public process by which these permits are approved, should make sure that the farms have more than adequate manure storage, are spreading over as many acres as possible, and be sure that the other details in the permit protect the environment.

  3. Human Health - There are very few avenues for CAFOs to not get permitted but one of those written in state statues is that if negative human health impacts can be shown, there is a mechanism for a CAFO to not be permitted. We obviously need more information and studies to make this a more viable option.

  4. Consumer Choices - CAFOs exist largely because we want relatively inexpensive food and they are very efficient at producing it. In Wisconsin at least, most of the CAFOs are dairy so our choices around milk, cheese, and other dairy products could have an impact on where the supply comes from.

I think it is pretty safe to say that agricultural producers do not aim to pollute our waters and they certainly do not want the attention that comes with manure spills and fish kills. We are an agricultural state and there will always be laws written to allow and protect farms. Working with agricultural interests and lawmakers to better protect our environment and hold accountable those that do violate the public trust and the Clean Water Act. It is, after all, the state's legal responsibility to protect our water resources.

For more on CAFO's in Wisconsin, check out the WisContext Series:

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1 Comment

Geoff Roznak
Geoff Roznak
Jan 19, 2021

Well written, and apolitical, for a post about politics! Thanks for taking on this subject.

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