Agriculture is the leading cause of pollution to waterways nationwide, and a major cause of water pollution, closure of shellfish beds and closure of swimming beaches in Washington. Manure is a source of nitrates, fecal coliform, and other serious pollutants and agricultural infrastructure is unable to deal with the huge amounts of waste produced by cattle, sheep and pigs.


Cows surround a manure lagoon in Skagit County.

Regulating Agricultural Pollution

There are approximately 1200 Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) in Washington State, but under current regulations only 14 are required to have a pollution discharge permit. There is an abundance of scientific evidence from state and federal agencies that pollution from these industrial agriculture facilities, where animals are confined in barns and feedlots and manure is stored in huge, unlined lagoons, has hugely detrimental effects on environmental and public health.

Pollution from CAFOs comes in the form of nitrates and fecal coliform. A single dairy cow produces 120 pounds of waste per day, and the giant, unlined lagoons used to store the accumulated manure leak these contaminants into groundwater. Whatcom County, with the largest concentration of dairies in the state, also has the lowest quality drinking water statewide. Drinking water with elevated nitrate levels is associated with respiratory, reproductive, and thyroid issues and some cancers. Infants exposed to high levels of nitrates are at risk of death.

Many industrial agricultural operations apply manure to crop fields as fertilizer, but because CAFOs produce more manure than plants can use, this practice is not sufficient to deal with the problem and overapplication of manure is common. Overapplication allows buildup of pollutants in the soil, and those pollutants then enter groundwater and surface water.

Current Actions

The Washington Department of Ecology has issued a new CAFO General Permit, replacing the prior permit which expired in 2011. But the new permit is too weak to truly protect public health and waterways. Soundkeeper, the Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance, and other partners are appealing the permit, which fails to include basic water quality monitoring requirements or best management practices. 

Resources

What’s Upstream

Western Environmental Law Center 

CAFO General Permit Fact Sheet

CAFO General Permit page from Department of Ecology

Impact of nutrient pollution on ocean acidification