ANDERSON — A recent report which found that nearly three-quarters of Indiana’s waterways are unsafe for recreational use raises valid concerns, but some environmental advocates say it lacks important context.
The report by the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit watchdog organization that advocates for more effective enforcement of Environmental Protection Agency regulations, found that Indiana reported to the EPA that 73% of its rivers and streams — more than 24,000 miles of waterways — contain pollutants, mainly excess E. coli bacteria and phosphorus, that make them potentially unsafe for human contact.
“We’ve actually seen big improvements, but not all the challenges have been met,” said Dr. Indra Frank, director of environmental health and water policy for the Hoosier Environmental Council. “I think our biggest challenge now is dealing with that (E. coli) impairment.”
E. coli, Frank noted, is a bacterium that originates in the digestive systems of both animals and people — “It’s a measure of how much bodily waste is getting into waterways,” she said — and the report indicates that confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) throughout the state are a key part of the problem.
“We have to confront the fact that agricultural runoff is really the leading cause of water pollution in the U.S. today,” Eric Shaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, told the Indiana Environmental Reporter. “I don’t think that was true, so much, 50 years ago. Some of that is runoff from fertilizer from cropland, but an awful lot of it comes from the factory farms that we use to raise livestock.”
However, environmental officials and advocates alike caution against assigning too much culpability to farmers and owners of those feeding lots. Aging municipal sewer and stormwater systems that are unable to handle unusually high volumes in the aftermath of torrential rains, for example, mean that excess sewage is sometimes released directly into rivers and streams.
Malfunctioning septic systems, as well as chemicals used in fertilizing lawns and fields, are other sources of pollution.
“People use those lawn care services and then it rains and that fertilizer goes right into the ground and into the river,” said Sheryl Myers, founder of the White River Watchers of Madison County. “There are water fowl — we’ve got loads of ducks and geese, hundreds of types of water fowl that defecate in places like Shadyside (Lake). Feed lots are partly responsible (for waterway pollution), but to say it’s all on them, it’s not true.”
Indiana regulates CAFOs and confined feeding operations (CFOs) under a set of requirements that are considered more stringent than federal regulations. Among those requirements are criteria that address facility design, construction and maintenance; setbacks from streams, wells, roads and residences; manure handling and storage procedures; monitoring and record keeping; and stormwater runoff from production areas.
“Anyone who plans to operate or start construction or expansion of a farm that meets the requirements of Indiana’s Confined Feeding Control Law must submit an application and receive a permit from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management prior to beginning construction or expansion of an operation,” IDEM spokesman Barry Sneed said in an email.
IDEM, in a 2019 update to its Nonpoint Source Management Program — which every state is required to have under the federal Clean Water Act — stressed state officials’ continued commitment to using a multi-pronged approach to limiting nonpoint source pollution.
“This approach emphasizes careful monitoring, targeted grantmaking, strategic outreach and education, powerful partnerships, and responsible administration,” the agency stated in its 300-page plan.
Farm industry groups agree that their feeding operations are well monitored, with some pointing out that IDEM doesn’t differentiate E. coli samples, making it virtually impossible to distinguish between livestock, wildlife or human contamination.
“It is not possible to determine the degree to which animal feeding operations are impacting our waters from the impairment data that IDEM collects,” said Josh Trenary, executive director of Indiana Pork.
Trenary said that in the 50 years since the Clean Water Act became federal law, pork farmers have produced a 35% smaller carbon footprint, using 78% less land and 41% less water.
“Our farmers are doing more with less, and that includes nutrients,” he said. “Fertilizer is expensive, and our farmers try to maximize the benefits of their manure by using it judiciously.”
The EIP report ranks Indiana first in the nation in terms of percentage of impaired waterways, but Myers pointed out what she considers a valid reason for the state’s low ranking.
“The reason we have so many miles considered impaired is because we measure so many miles,” she said. “It’s fair to say we still have a lot of work to do…but we’re not dead last.”