Direct treatment of livestock waste, while it is still concentrated and before it has a chance to contaminate downstream ecosystems, can save U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars in annual costs to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, Great Lakes and Mississippi River Basin, and in the many smaller watersheds where excess nutrients are an issue. Moreover, the low-cost improvements available at our largest livestock production facilities represent high-impact solutions that can help speed the recovery of these watersheds.
Our clean water strategy that focuses spending on downstream ‘point sources’ is no longer up to the task of maintaining water quality: up or downstream. Traditional agricultural conservation practices, designed to capture upstream nutrient runoff from farm fields, have been shown to be substantially less effective than predicted. We need to increase funding to the agriculture sector and direct that funding to the most effective and cost-effective solutions, like advanced livestock waste treatment, where the scale and concentration of large-scale production is an asset.
We now know that most of the nitrogen impacts from livestock waste come from ammonia emissions. That nitrogen is highly-volatile and doesn’t run off as previously thought. First, it evaporates to atmosphere, where it then settles back to the ground, everywhere. Then, it percolates down to groundwater where it contaminates drinking water supplies and is eventually transported downstream and into coastal waters. Traditional conservation practices are all but useless against this nitrogen, which has proven to be the biggest (and most expensive) problem to deal with, both locally and downstream.
A 2014 study by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, The Economic Benefits of Cleaning Up the Chesapeake Bay, estimated the value of the land and waters of the Bay region, prior to implementation of the 2010 TMDL, at $107.2 billion annually. Further, the study estimated that a cleaned-up Bay would be valued at $129.7 billion annually. Comparable or larger numbers could be expected for the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Basin/ Gulf of Mexico.
A new national strategy that adequately addresses all of the pollution sources in a watershed will greatly improve water quality and ecosystem health throughout the watershed, accelerate cleanup efforts, and dramatically reduce costs.
The Bay’s declining grass beds are a bellwether of its health and provide critical habitat for the iconic blue crab and several species of fish. Improved water quality will allow the beds to return to historic levels.
Reducing nitrogen runoff to groundwater can avoid future costs to treat drinking water. High nitrate levels in drinking water can lead to thyroid cancer and “blue baby” syndrome that in infants reduces the blood’s capacity to carry oxygen. Pregnant women are also at risk from elevated nitrates and some health studies suggest that higher levels can lead to formation of cancer-causing substances in adults. Elevated nitrate levels in aquifers and water wells have become a growing problem in several states with livestock production, especially in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Frequent waste collection followed by advanced treatment dramatically reduces ammonia, greenhouse gases and other air emissions. Livestock production is responsible for approximately 15 percent of global greenhouse gases. It is also the largest source of ammonia emissions in the U.S. and the world. Ammonia contributes to the formation of PM2.5, fine inhalable particulate air pollution that poses significant health risks for heart and lung disease, especially in the young and elderly. Ammonia from livestock waste is one of the largest sources of nitrogen to groundwater and surface runoff. The only way to deal with that ammonia is to capture it at its source, before it can escape to the surrounding environment where it is very difficult and expensive to recapture.
Direct treatment can largely eliminate pathogens in the waste stream, as well. Outbreaks of foodborne illness, often fatal, are regularly traced back to contamination from livestock waste used to fertilize crops. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria due to overuse in livestock production is a widely and hotly-debated issue. Several recent studies have demonstrated an increased incidence of MRSA and other antibiotic-resistant bacteria in humans that live near fields that have been fertilized with either raw swine or dairy manure.
Treating livestock waste at its source promotes environmental health throughout the watershed and generates a wide range of benefits to local ecosystems and communities that cannot be achieved through more difficult and dilute downstream treatment.