Animal factory farms are booming across the Midwest these days, but these are not the small family farms that resonate in the American psyche. These industrial-scale operations, also known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), produce unsustainable levels of waste that can have devastating effects on local waterways. Lake Erie has been plagued by harmful algae in recent years caused by such pollution along the Maumee River watershed. These CAFOs are poorly regulated and poorly understood by both the public and policy-makers.
To shine a light on this hidden world of agricultural pollution, ELPC partnered with the Environmental Working Group (EWG) to develop a method of monitoring industrial livestock production using publicly-available satellite imagery. Researchers measured the visible infrastructure of facilities and used industry guidelines to estimate animal counts, manure volume, and nutrient output over time. The results reveal rapid, massive growth in animal feeding operations, and downstream communities have already seen the impact of their resultant nutrient pollution over the past few decades.
What is ELPC Doing?
Maumee River Watershed – The Maumee River system is the largest watershed in the Great Lakes Basin, bringing together waters from Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio before flowing out to western Lake Erie off the coast of Toledo. Unfortunately, in recent years Lake Erie has been plagued by harmful algae blooms, caused by an excess of phosphorous from agricultural runoff in the Maumee River system. In 2014, the toxic microcystin bacteria was so bad that Toledo had to shut down their drinking water supply for three days, calling in the national guard to bring safe water to the population of 500,000 people.
ELPC has been fighting to clean up this watershed through legal battles in Indiana and Ohio. Leaders across the region are now working to address toxic algae by reducing agricultural pollution, but first, they need to understand the scale of the problem and target the worst polluters across the watershed. The data from this study represents the most complete accounting of confined livestock within the Maumee River basin. ELPC will continue to monitor these facilities and push for strong pollution-control standards and clean water for all.