Standing Up for Outstanding Waters: A CAFO Update.

From Deb Ryun, Wild River Conservancy

Cumberland LLC has applied for a permit to build a Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) for hogs, near Trade Lake, in Burnett County, WI. It’s estimated that this hog factory will produce about 13 million gallons of waste annually. This manure would be stored on the 38-acre hog production site, then spread on nearby farm fields.

As part of their application, Cumberland is required to identify the fields which will be used. Wisconsin law requires that CAFOs must have “adequate acreage available for the manure produced”, and severe restrictions are placed on spreading manure where groundwater is less than 24” below the surface. How do these requirements compare with Cumberland’s proposal?

Mapping shows that at least 30% of their proposed acreage for spreading manure has a water table depth of less than 12”, half of the required 24” minimum. Further, nearly 80% of the proposed fields have additional legal restrictions on spreading, due to proximity to important surface waters, including lakes, rivers, streams, and wetlands.

Cumberland’s application, as written, clearly does not meet legal requirements for manure disposal and should be rejected on that basis alone. However, this should not be a matter of simply tweaking the manure disposal plan and reapplying. The problem is greater than this.

A study of groundwater in Burnett County states that its overall quality is now very good and that no health risks are present. Burnett County is a very water-rich county, with more than 500 lakes, 10 rivers, and 145 miles of streams, including 66 miles classified as trout streams. The Namekagon and St. Croix Rivers, along with seven other water bodies, are listed as outstanding resource waters.

But a combination of shallow groundwater and sandy soils makes our groundwater particularly susceptible to contamination. County data show that more than 75% of the county has groundwater less than 20 feet below the land surface, and this groundwater exists as part of one large, continuous aquifer, much of which flows to surface water. Pollution of groundwater from application of manure in fields where the water table is near the surface could thus be disastrous, affecting not just local water but the whole St. Croix River system. This is not just a problem with one particular CAFO application; Burnett County area is geologically unsuited to CAFOs.

Since early 2019, the Wild Rivers Conservancy has been actively engaged with local efforts to stop this hog factory. We support the development of ordinances and policies at the Township level in a newly developed consortium. The Conservancy is providing technical expertise related to groundwater, surface water, air pollution, manure management, topography, and other variables. The Conservancy is very much engaged in this effort and will remain so.

We have focused here on groundwater concerns, but there are also other, well-documented, negative environmental, economic, and social consequences associated with CAFOs. On a narrow, local level, no one would be happy having millions of gallons of manure stored or spread on fields near their home. But the problems with this CAFO proposal are neither narrow nor local; they are broad and regional. There are ample reasons for this project to be opposed and, ultimately, rejected.