Something was obviously wrong with the water below Tap Root Dairy in Fletcher. In late 2012, the stretch of the French Broad River flowing past the operation appeared a sickly brown slurry, an unsettling reminder of the days when locals called the river “too thick to drink and too thin to plow.” Lab testing by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources confirmed what the naked eye might have suspected: A fecal coliform level of 99,000 parts per million, over 120 times the acceptable threshold, meant the dairy had released 11,000 gallons of cattle waste into the waterway.
Based on this evidence, Tap Root owner William “Billy” Franklin Johnston was found guilty on one count of violating the Clean Water Act. The dairy was fined $80,000 and placed on a four-year probationary term with a comprehensive environmental compliance plan, while Johnston was fined $15,000 and sentenced to six months of home detention and four years of probation.
Advocates for clean water in North Carolina often focus on the eastern part of the state, which hosts one of the world’s highest concentration of hogs. The concentrated animal feeding operations that house these animals hold can hold thousands of pigs each, with each hog producing roughly 10 times the fecal waste of a human, according to Mark Sobsey of the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC Chapel Hill.
But French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson emphasizes that Western North Carolina and its smaller farms are not immune from the water quality issues related to animal agriculture. “Unfortunately, what we’ve found is that like in any industry, if smaller producers don’t manage their operations correctly, they still have a pretty substantial impact,” he says.
Carson and Gray Jernigan, Green riverkeeper and southern regional director of MountainTrue, highlighted these concerns in a presentation attended by roughly 20 people at Sanctuary Brewing Co. in Hendersonville on Nov. 20, in partnership with Asheville Vegan Outreach.
From the black lagoon
Jernigan explains that even the moderately sized dairy farms found in the mountains handle their waste through a process similar to that of large hog CAFOs. Manure is washed out from animal pens and funneled into a man-made pit known as a lagoon, where the solids settle to the bottom for processing by bacteria that break down many of their organic compounds. The liquids rise to the top, where they can be pumped through industrial sprinklers onto nearby crop fields as a fertilizer.
Although this approach is standard practice for livestock operations, Jernigan argues that lagoons often fail to meet their environmental goals. “They’re operating under what is essentially a legal fiction, that they’re nondischarge operations,” he says. “In reality, those fields [where waste is sprayed] are heavily ditched so that they drain. That waste easily runs off into nearby waterways, so they’re very much discharging fecal bacteria, E. coli and nutrient-laden wastewater.”
Carson claims that while existing regulations do forbid this type of runoff, lack of enforcement remains a major obstacle to protecting water quality. “There just aren’t enough eyes on these producers to make sure waste management is done correctly,” he says.
A state spokeswoman, however, disputes that claim. The state’s regulatory program is “robust,” says Bridget Munger, public information officer for the Water Resources Division of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, previously known as DENR. The division is responsible for monitoring violations of environmental regulations.
“Staff in the regions work with farm owners to ensure they are aware of their permit requirements and conditions, as well as preventative measures to avoid incidents such as a lagoon breach or a spill due to heavy rainfall,” Munger says. “The division is always looking for ways to improve our programs and welcomes feedback from citizens, environmental groups and the regulated community.”
The North Carolina General Assembly cut the budget for the DEQ by nearly $2 million earlier this year, eliminating more than 16 jobs throughout the agency. Munger clarifies that none of these lost positions came from the Water Resources Division. However, the state’s allocation for the Clean Water Management Trust Fund was also cut by 18 percent compared to 2016 levels.
In response, North Carolina’s riverkeeper organizations have moved to complement the work of government agencies. “Because we have a lot of volunteer help, groups like ours have started taking that watchdog and monitoring role to find the egregious polluters out there,” says Carson. “As we find issues, we can use the DEQ to follow up and push for improvements on the farm or write a violation, if that’s the best course of action.”
Since MountainTrue established the French Broad Riverkeeper in 2001, Carson says, the organization has found issues at roughly nine of the 14 facilities in the river’s watershed with pollution control permits from the DEQ. From October 2016 through September 2017, DEQ data list seven violations at permitted facilities overseen by the Asheville regional office, resulting in 11 notices of violation and one civil penalty of $303. Carson adds that, while most of the region’s smaller, nonpermitted animal operations pose few water quality concerns, even minor problems such as a few cattle defecating in a stream can add up over time.
Farmers usually recognize the importance of water quality, says soil conservationist Anthony Dowdle of the Buncombe County Soil and Water Conservation District. The economic realities of agriculture, however, can reduce the priority of maintaining conservation measures. “If you and I both have beef cattle, and only you go to the trouble of fencing them out of your stream, we’re still both going to get a very similar price at market,” he offers as an illustration. “The difference is that you’re going to have more money in them than I will.”
To reduce that financial disincentive, SWCD manages a cost-share program that reimburses farmers with 75 percent of installation expenses for improvements. Dowdle says that while interest in the voluntary program is high — roughly 40 applicants are currently on his waiting list — the current state allocation of $83,244 for water quality projects is insufficient to meet the demand. “I’ll probably get 10 or 12 of them funded this year,” he says. “The cost to do these projects has gone up, but our funding has not kept pace with those increases over the last few years.”
Prioritization of those funds falls to the SWCD’s board of supervisors, two of which are appointed by the state Soil and Water Conservation Commission and three of which are elected by Buncombe County voters. The local makeup of the board helps the SWCD make more nuanced decisions than might be determined based on livestock operation size alone. Farms on watersheds with existing quality issues receive higher priority, as do operations hit by damaging weather events.
Dowdle notes that good water quality practices can have economic advantages to compensate for their costs. Remote watering systems, for example, can encourage cattle to avoid drinking from vulnerable streams while nudging them to move around a pasture. That rotational grazing increases forage production and reduces costs for additional feed.
Even given these benefits, the pressures of global competition can make conservation a hard sell for farmers that miss out on cost-share funds. “A lot of countries don’t have the regulations that we have here in the U.S. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but they have an economic cost that’s not always built into the system,” Dowdle says. “I had a farmer tell me one time that farming was managed neglect: You had to get up every morning and figure out what you weren’t going to do that day.”
Focusing on agriculture as a contributor to water quality problems could risk ignoring emerging issues in Western North Carolina, suggests Maria Wise, watershed coordinator with the nonprofit Mills River Partnership. “We don’t have that much rural area left — we’re losing farmland at a shocking rate, and we’re starting to see bigger problems with residential areas and development,” she says.
Wise explains that her biggest concern is preventing sediment from entering streams and rivers. She says that farmers, while often financially limited, are “certainly aware when things aren’t going right, and they want to fix problems.”
In contrast, many developers lack the longstanding history with the land that farmers possess. “More often than not, the best management practices they’re supposed to install at construction sites for runoff prevention are rarely up to par,” Wise says.
Bradley Johnston, co-owner of the Tap Root property hit with a water quality violation in 2012, agrees with Wise’s warning. “If people are truly concerned about water quality, which they should be, they need to look at things other than animal agriculture,” he says. Johnston points to a 7 million gallon sewage leak from the Metropolitan Sewerage District treatment plant in Woodfin in 2013, as well as contamination resulting from flooding in areas like Biltmore Village as issues associated with human, rather than animal, waste.
Johnston’s family closed the dairy operation in 2016 but still farms corn on the property; the land is currently on the market. “Once that land is sold, that 350 acres of green space won’t be there,” he says. “The green space that people like to see around us, that they want to preserve and keep, is almost all owned by agriculture.”
The long view
Regardless of current issues, environmental progress since the middle of the 20th century gives cause for hope regarding water quality, says Mitch Woodward, area specialized agent for watersheds and water quality at N.C. Cooperative Extension. “For me growing up, there was a focus on production in agriculture — there was never any discussion about pollution because there was money to be made,” he says. “People are aware now, and I definitely see more of a focus on sustainability.”
Like Wise and Johnston, Woodward offers a reminder that any development, not just animal agriculture, comes with water quality concerns. “We can have famers pointing to the cities and cities pointing at the farmers, and where does that get us?” he says. “Human activity in all its forms is causing this. Everybody likes clean water, and we’re all involved.”