Restoring Streams in the Heartland

  • Settlers dug ditches and straightened rivers to drain the fields they needed for planting. (photo by Mark Brush)

Today, we wrap up our series on pollution in the heartland.
To farm in the nation’s heartland, people first had to drain the water from the land. In a lot of places, that meant dredging rivers to get them to move along faster and carry water off the fields. But straight, fast rivers aren’t healthy rivers. And the rushing water carries pesticides and fertilizers off of fields and deposits them downstream. But in some places, farmers are starting to repair rivers. The GLRC’s Rebecca Williams has the final story in our week-long series:

Transcript

Today, we wrap up our series on pollution in the heartland. To farm in the nation’s
heartland, people first had to drain the water from the land. In a lot of places, that meant
dredging rivers to get them to move along faster and carry water off the fields. But
straight, fast rivers aren’t healthy rivers. And the rushing water carries pesticides and
fertilizers off of fields and deposits them downstream. But in some places, farmers are
starting to repair rivers. The GLRC’s Rebecca Williams has the final story in our week-long series:


From an airplane, the land below it looks like it was drawn in geometry class. Fields
of corn and soybeans look almost like perfect squares. Rivers seem as straight as a ruler’s
edge.


When rivers have their way, they’re unruly. They have lots of twists and bends, but people have straightened a lot of rivers and streams to make it easier to grow crops
and raise animals. European settlers forging their way West got stuck in huge swamps.
The mosquitoes were terrible. But the settlers’ chances of raising food in the swampland
were even worse.


“In order to reclaim that land, muckland, for raising vegetable crops, they had to drain it.”


Barb Cook owns a farm here in fertile southwest Michigan. Her grandfather farmed here
in the early 1900s, back when the rivers were being straightened.


(sound of river)


Cook’s standing on the bank of the Dowagiac River. Right now it’s as straight as a canal
and it’s moving fast. But it’s about to get some of its curves back.


Barb Cook says she was skeptical when she heard about the plan to coax the river back to
its original path.


“Well, they want to put the wiggles back. Well, why? Were they trying to hoodwink
anyone or were their objectives pure? And I got involved and felt they were really truly
trying to improve things.”


Cook’s now the vice president of the group. It calls itself MEANDRS. It’s made up of
farmers and biologists and fishermen. People who all have a stake in what happens to the
river.


They’re carving out one of the curves the river used to follow.


Jay Wesley is a biologist with the Department of Natural Resources. He says even
though this new meander isn’t connected to the river yet, little springs are bubbling up.


“We’ve actually even seen trout in here since this first part of the project’s been done.
They’ve come up through the culvert from the river and have found their way up here.
So it’s pretty cold, high quality water.”


That’s exciting news for fishermen. A river fed by cold groundwater can be a mecca for
trout. The pools and riffles sculpted into the new meander will give fish places to hide.


These small signs of hope are a pretty big deal. This project is a very long labor of
love 12 years in the making.


That’s because there are lots of hurdles. For one thing, meander restorations are
expensive. Half a million dollars at the low end.


There are piles of paperwork.


And some farmers worry that restoring meanders will flood their fields.


In this project, the MEANDRS group surveyed nearby farmers early on about their
concerns and included them in the planning process. Bill Westraight is the President of
MEANDRS. He’s also a farmer who owns land along the river.


“I think what I say holds more weight with farmers than if somebody had come down and
was mandating that they participate in some way.”


Westraight says they had some major critics in the beginning. But he says they’ve gotten
almost all the neighbors on board. He says it was crucial that they gave everyone a say.
They also commissioned feasibility studies to make sure upstream farmers wouldn’t be
flooded.


All these hurdles mean that projects like these aren’t very common.


Andrew Fahlund is with the nonprofit group American Rivers. He says big projects like
meander restorations almost always need government funding. And that funding’s been
cut dramatically over the past few years. Fahlund says those cuts are short-sighted
because healthier rivers can actually save money in the long run.


“One of the reasons you get such an economic benefit from river restoration is that you
reduce the costs of having to treat water, filter
that water and clean it up for human consumption.”


(river sound up under)


The MEANDRS group says there’s no way they can restore the entire river. But they
hope mending just this small section will help revive the river a bit.


The group points out that this type of restoration won’t work everywhere. They say in
many places, channelized rivers are still crucial for keeping fields drained.


Farmer Barb Cook says even now, she sees this project as an experiment. In a few
months, she’ll get to see whether all her hard work will pan out, when they’ll try to force
water from the straight channel into the new meander.


“As you look at the stream behind us, it’s quite a volume of water. Water has its own
way. Mother Nature has something to say about this too. She may say no.”


Cook says nothing ever runs smoothly. But she says they’ll just be flexible and this time
around, let the river choose its course.


For the GLRC, I’m Rebecca Williams.

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Capping Pollution at the Source

  • A newly dug drainage tile. These underground pipes keep the fields dry, but they're also a pathway for nitrogen fertilizers. (photo by Mark Brush)

Today, we begin a week-long series on pollution in the heartland.
Storm water runoff from farm fields contaminates the lakes that many cities use for drinking water. But rather than making farmers reduce the pollution, the government requires water utilities to clean it up and pass the cost on to their customers. In the first part of our series, the GLRC’s Lester Graham reports on efforts some communities have made to stop the pollution at the source:

Transcript

Today, we begin a week-long series on pollution in the heartland. Storm water runoff from farm
fields contaminates the lakes that many cities use for drinking water. But rather than making
farmers reduce the pollution, the government requires water utilities to clean it up and pass the
cost on to their customers. In the first part of our series, the GLRC’s Lester Graham reports on
efforts some communities have made to stop the pollution at the source:


To a great extent, nitrogen fertilizer determines how big a corn crop will be. But often, farmers
use more nitrogen than they really need. It’s a bit of a wager. If conditions are just right, that
extra nitrogen can sometimes pay off in more bushels of corn. But just as often the extra nitrogen
ends up being washed away by rain.


That nitrogen can get into lakes that are used for public drinking supplies. If nitrate levels get too
high the nitrogen can displace oxygen in the blood of children under six months old. It’s called
‘blue baby syndrome.’ In extreme cases it can cause death.


Keith Alexander is the Director of Water Management for the city of Decatur, Illinois. He recalls
that the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency required his city to give families with babies
bottled water because nitrogen levels exceeded the federal limits.


“For approximately six years, while we went through the motions of determining what was best
for our community, we did issue bottled water on an infrequent basis when the nitrate levels did
indeed elevate.”


The City of Decatur had to get nitrate levels down. So, they piggy-backed on federal and state
incentives offered to farmers to use better management practices. The city gave farmers money
to build terraces to reduce soil erosion. It gave money on top of federal and state tax dollars to
farmers to put in grass waterways to slow water rushing off the fields. The city gave farmers
money on top of federal and state incentives to use conservation tillage methods. They offered to
pay to install artificial wetlands so plants would take up the nitrogen before it got into the public
water supplies. It gave farmers money to use a chemical that help stabilize nitrogen in the soil.


With all that city and state and federal money offered to farmers, was it enough to reduce nitrogen
to safe levels?


“Unfortunately, no.”


Keith Alexander says some farmers did take advantage of the incentives. But not enough of
them.


“We’ve done quite a bit on a voluntary basis with a lot of great cooperation from the agricultural
community, but in spite of all that, we would still at times have elevated nitrate levels in Lake
Decatur.”


The city had to build the largest nitrate reduction facility in North America, at a cost of 7.5 million dollars to ensure its drinking water did not exceed the federal standards for
nitrates.


The people who tried to persuade farmers to sign up for the nitrogen reduction programs say
many of the farmers were skeptical that they were the cause of the problem. Some didn’t care.
And some were just skeptical of government programs and the red tape involved.


Steven John is the Executive Director of the Agricultural Watershed Institute. He’s still working
with farmers to reduce nitrogen runoff in the region. Today, the reason is not Decatur’s lake but a problem farther downstream.


“To a fairly large extent, the driver for addressing nitrogen issues now is loading to the Gulf of
Mexico. And, in one sense, because we’ve been at this for some time here and developed a little
bit of a history of city-farm cooperation– also developed good monitoring data, you know, to be
able to look at trends over time– we’re in good position to use our watershed as something of a
laboratory to test ideas that might be applied elsewhere in the corn belt.”


Nitrogen from the Decatur lake watershed eventually flows into the Mississippi River. Illinois,
just like all or parts of 37 other states drain into the Mississippi and finally to the Gulf of Mexico.
There researchers believe the nitrogen fertilizes algae growth, so much so that when the algae
dies and sinks to the bottom of the gulf, the decomposing vegetation robs the water of oxygen
and causes a dead zone that can be as large as the state of New Jersey some years.


But getting farmers to change their farming practices when it was causing problems for the city
next to them was difficult. Getting them to change for a problem hundreds of miles away is even
tougher.


Ted Shambaugh is a farmer who has changed. He says the reasons farmers don’t take the
nitrogen problem more seriously is complicated, but as far as he’s concerned, it’s part of how
farming has changed in the last few decades:


“This is going to fly against a lot of common thought, I suppose, about the farmer, and it does get
me in trouble sometimes, but the farmer has become inherently lazy in his management
techniques. They’ve even gone to the fact that even though they’ve got a 150,000 or 200,000
dollar tractor sitting there, they hire their nitrogen put on. Why do they do that? Well, a lot of it
is because they then have somebody to blame. That, if it didn’t go on right, ‘Well, I didn’t do
that.’ Well, we kind of think that’s what we get paid for, is management.”


Most people in cities like Decatur won’t say things like that about the farmers in the countryside
about them. The economic well-being of many of the cities in the corn belt are highly dependent
on agriculture. Criticizing farmers is just not done, even when many of those farmers won’t lift
a finger to clean up the water that their city neighbors have to drink.


For the GLRC, this is Lester Graham.

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Cities Cope With Pesticide Pollution

  • Farmers are using fewer pesticides these days. (photo by Don Breneman)

Today, we continue our series on pollution in the heartland. Farm pollution is one of the biggest contamination problems in the country. But unlike other industries, there are very few pollution restrictions on agriculture. In the second story of our week-long series, the GLRC’s Lester Graham reports when cities clean up pollution from pesticides, the cost ends up on their citizens’ water bills:

Transcript

Today, we continue our series on pollution in the heartland. Farm pollution is one of the biggest
contamination problems in the country. But unlike other industries, there are very few pollution
restrictions on agriculture. In the second story of our week-long series, the GLRC’s Lester
Graham reports when cities clean up pollution from pesticides the cost ends up on their citizens’
water bills:


Every city in the Corn Belt that gets its water from surface supplies such as lakes and rivers has to
deal with pesticide contamination. For the most part, the pesticide levels are below federal
standards for safe drinking water. But water treatment plants have to test for the chemicals and
other pollutants that wash in from farm fields.


Some cities have had to build artificial wetlands or take other more expensive measures to help
reduce pollution such as nitrogen, phosphorous and pesticides.


Craig Cummings is the Water Director for the City of Bloomington, Illinois.


“Well, you know, it is an expense that, you know, we would rather not bear, obviously. We
don’t, you know, particularly like to pass that on to our customers. But, again, it’s understood
that we’re not going to have crystal clear, pristine waters here in the Midwest. But, that’s not to
say that we should stick our head in the sand and not work with the producers. At least here in
our little neck of the woods we think we have a great working relationship with the producers.”


Part of that working relationship is a liaison with the farmers.


Jim Rutheford has worked with farmers in the area on soil conservation issues for decades. He’s
showing me the artificial wetlands that the City of Bloomington is monitoring to see if it can help
reduce some of the contaminants that end up in the city’s water supply. The wetlands reduce
nitrogen runoff and filter out some of the pesticides such as atrazine that otherwise would end up
in Bloomington’s lake.


“The atrazine was used back several years ago in high concentrated amounts. Its effects were if
you get a flush of rain after your atrazine is put on, it comes into the lake.”


Rutherford says for a very long time atrazine has been popular with corn farmers.


“It’s the cheapest, but it’s also gives more problems as far as water quality is concerned.”


Because atrazine has been so popular, a lot of farmers use it and it’s polluted some lakes to the
point they exceeded safe drinking water standards.


In one test during spring applications of atrazine, National Oceanic and Atmospherica
Administration scientists found so much of the chemical had evaporated from Midwest farm
fields that rain in some parts of the East Coast had atrazine levels that exceeded safe drinking
water levels.


But atrazine levels have been going down. It’s not so much because of artificial wetlands or
because farmers are concerned about pesticide pollution, although some of them have expressed
concern. Atrazine has not been as much of a problem because more and more farmers are
switching to genetically modified crops such as Round-Up Ready soybeans and more recently
Round-Up Ready corn. The Monsanto seed is genetically altered so that the Monsanto pesticide,
Round-Up, can be applied to the fields and not hurt the crops. And Round-Up doesn’t cause the
kind of water pollution that atrazine does.


Mike Kelly is a farmer who’s concerned about reducing storm water runoff from farm fields.


“A lot of the herbicides that we’re using attack the plant, not the soil. For example, Round-Up
does not hang around in the soil. Now, I do still use atrazine. It does attach to soil particles. But
there’s where the advantage of no-till–the soil staying put in the field–as you said, we’re not
getting as much erosion, so it stays put and breaks down the way it’s supposed to.”


Kelly use a conservation tillage method that doesn’t plow up the soil the way traditional methods
do. That means less soil erosion so pesticides aren’t as likely to end up in waterways. And Kelly says low-till and no-till methods are beginning to get a hand from nature:


“Definitely conservation tillage and no-till is going to help keep herbicides in the field. Again, he
do see increased infiltration through better soil structure and also through earthworms coming
back, creating holes about the size of a pencil three to four feet deep in our soils. That is a nice
avenue for water to infiltrate rather than run off.”


And if more of the water percolates down into the soil, less of it is going to end up polluting
water supplies such as the City of Bloomington’s lake.


Water Director Craig Cummings says they city encourages voluntary efforts like Mike Kelly’s.
Cummings says the city depends on the farming community too much to point a finger, accusing
farmers of pollution.


“We recognize that we’re in the breadbasket of the world here. And we’re going to see with the
kind of agricultural practices that we have here in the Midwest or United States, we’re going to
see some of these contaminants.”


Cummings says it’s not a matter of eliminating pesticide contamination at the source, but
rather a matter of the city keeping levels low enough that the water is safe to drink.


For the GLRC, this is Lester Graham.

Related Links

Livestock Farms Get Big

  • Frank Baffi's barn in southern Michigan (photo by Mark Brush)

Today, we continue our series on pollution in the heartland.
There are fewer farmers raising pigs, cows and chickens these days.
But the amount of meat being produced in the U.S. continues to increase.
So livestock farms haven’t exactly disappeared. They’ve just gotten bigger.
In the third part of our week-long series, the GLRC’s Mark Brush reports these big operations have kept food costs down, but those cheap prices come with consequences:

Transcript

Today, we continue our series on pollution in the heartland.
There are fewer farmers raising pigs, cows and chickens these days.
But the amount of meat being produced in the U.S. continues to increase.
So livestock farms haven’t exactly disappeared. They’ve just gotten bigger.
In the third part of our week-long series, the GLRC’s Mark Brush reports these big operations have kept food costs down, but those cheap prices come
with consequences:


When you picture a typical farm, chances are you probably think of a farm just like Frank
Baffi’s.


(Sound of farm)


He grows corn and oats on his land. He’s got chickens, a couple of horses, two ducks,
about 30 beef cows. And in this fading red barn, he’s got pigs:


(Sound of claps)


“Hey Pig! C’mon! Get up!”


(Sound of pigs)


In fact, the pigs have been the most profitable thing he’s raised on this farm. Baffi says
he used to sell more than fifty thousand dollars worth of pigs every year. It was enough
to make a living on.


(Sound of pigs)


But as time went on, selling pigs became less profitable. In the 1980s, his expenses went
up and the price he could get for his pigs went down. Baffi says he was faced with a
decision. It was the same decision that many small livestock farmers faced at the time:
“I think it was a whole trend that if you weren’t big you had to get out. It was if you had
20 cows it was you gotta be milkin’ 30, or if you were milking 30 it was oh, you gotta be
milkin’ 100. The reason they weren’t making any money is that they’re not making
enough money for what they sell.”


Frank Baffi blames the drop in prices on the increase in global trade. He says US
producers started to compete with operations overseas, where expenses can often be
cheaper. To keep up, producers in the US got more efficient, and as they did so, prices
continued to drop. Baffi says he tried to get bigger, but he just didn’t have enough
money.


But just down the road there’s a pig farm that is making a profit. Frank Baffi’s neighbor
is Bruce Barton. His dad started the family in the hog business in the 1950s. Barton says
early on his Dad could see what was coming:


“He pretty much expanded because he could see that small farmers were struggling to
survive and ya know we had buy the feed in larger lots you sell your hogs in larger lots.
There was going to be less margin for each hog. You just had to have more, more of
them.”


The Bartons raised about 11 pigs when the started out. Now they raise about 100,000.
That may seem like a lot, but their operation is small compared to those that raise over a
million hogs a year.


The size of these big farms trouble many environmentalists. These farms are forced to
deal with large volumes of manure. On average one pig can generate close to two tons of
manure a year. Multiply that by one million and you get the picture. Smaller farms can
spread the manure as fertilizer on their land without much problem and large farms can
use the manure too. It’s just that they need a lot of land to spread the manure on. If they
put too much on a field, it can pollute streams and drinking water wells, and researchers
say, these farms are only going to get bigger.


Jim MacDonald researches farming trends for the US Department of Agriculture. He
says small farmers can make a go of it if they’re able to find a niche market, like
producing organic meat and milk. But MacDonald says the demand for these niche
products is still tiny compared to the demand for things like chicken nuggets and hot
dogs:


“The overall trend so far, I think, continues to be towards larger operations producing
what we might call generic or commodity like products and their prices continue to fall.”


Prices are falling because these farms continue to get bigger and more efficient. That
means fewer and fewer people are farming. So the idyllic picture we have of the small
farmer is fading.


(Sound of Frank’s farm up)


Last year, Frank Baffi lost more than a thousand dollars on his farm. He mainly relies on
his social security check for his income. A row of empty metal crates line his barn:


“This is where I’d have pigs and this is where they would have their babies. There
probably all used up but I just haven’t had the heart to tear them out. Because I always
thought that I could at least get back to where I was. And the way it looks, you know, the
profitability of this thing, it don’t look like I’m going to go there.”


So the choices you make at the grocery store influence how farms are changing. It’s only
normal: most of us pick the cheaper product. But some people who live near these large
facilities say consumers don’t know the full cost of their choices.


For the GLRC, I’m Mark Brush.

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Too Much Manure?

  • Hog manure being injected into the ground and tilled under. The manure fertilizes the crops, but if too much is applied it can foul up waterways. (photo by Mark Brush)

Today, we continue our series on pollution in the heartland.
Dairy farms are getting bigger. Many keep thousands of cows in buildings the size of several football fields. These big dairy operations can make a lot of milk. That translates into cheaper prices at the grocery store.
But some worry these large farms are polluting the land around them. In the fourth story of our week-long series, the GLRC’s Mark Brush visits a big Midwestern dairy farm:

Transcript

Today, we continue our series on pollution in the heartland. Dairy farms are getting bigger.
Many keep thousands of cows in buildings the size of several football fields. These big dairy
operations can make a lot of milk. That translates into cheaper prices at the grocery store. But
some worry these large farms are polluting the land around them. In the fourth story of our week-long series, the GLRC’s Mark Brush visits a big Midwestern dairy farm:


(sound of giant fans)


About a thousand cows are in this building, eating, lolling around, and waiting for the next round
of milking.


There’s a sharp smell of manure hanging in the air. Big fans are blowing to keep the cows cool,
and to keep the air circulated.


Stephan Vander Hoff runs this dairy along with his siblings. He says these big farms are good for
consumers:


“We’ve got something here and we’ve been able to do it in such a way that we’re still producing
at the same cost that we were fifteen years ago. It costs more now for a gallon of gas than a
gallon of milk. And so, that’s something to be proud of.”


Vander Hoff’s dairy produces enough milk to fill seven tanker trucks everyday. They also
produce a lot of waste. The cows in this building are penned in by metal gates. They can’t go
outside. So the manure and urine that would normally pile up is washed away by water.


Tens of thousands of gallons of wastewater are sent to big lagoons outside. Eventually, the
liquefied manure is spread onto nearby farm fields. It’s a challenge for these farmers to deal with
these large pools of liquid manure. The farther they have to haul it, the more expensive it is for
them. Almost all of them put the manure onto farm fields.


It’s good for the crops if it’s done right, but if too much manure is put on the land, it can wash into streams and creeks. In fact, this
dairy has been cited by the state of Michigan for letting their manure get into nearby waterways.


(sound of roadway)


Lynn Henning keeps a close eye on Vander Hoff’s dairy.


(car door opening and closing)


She steps from her car with a digital camera, and a device that measures water quality.


(sound of crickets and walking through the brush)


She weaves her way down to the edge of this creek.


“This is the area where we got E. coli at 7.5 million.”


High E. coli levels mean the water might be polluted with dangerous pathogens. Lynn Henning is
testing the creek today because she saw farmers spreading liquid manure on the fields yesterday.
Henning is a farmer turned environmental activist. She works for the Sierra Club and drives all
over the state taking water samples and pictures near big livestock farms.


Henning says she got involved because more of these large animal farms expanded into her
community. She says when the farmers spread the liquid manure, it can make life in the country
pretty difficult:


“The odor is horrendous when they’re applying –we have fly infestations–we have hydrogen
sulfide in the air that nobody knows is there because you can’t always smell it. We have to live
in fear that every glass of water that we drink is going to be contaminated at some point.”


Water contamination from manure is a big concern. The liquid manure can contain nasty
pathogens and bacteria.


Joan Rose is a microbiologist at Michigan State University.


“If animal wastes are not treated properly and we have large concentrations of animal waste
going onto land and then via rainfall or other runoff events entering into our water – there can
be outbreaks associated with this practice.”


Rose tested water in this area and found high levels of cryptosporidium that likely came from
cattle. Cryptosporidium is the same bug that killed people in Milwaukee back in 1993. Rose
says livestock farmers need to think more about keeping these pathogens out of the water. But
she says they don’t get much support from the state and researchers on how best to do that.


For now, the farmers have to come up with their own solutions.


(sound of treatment plant)


Three years ago, the state of Michigan sued Stephen Vander Hoff’s dairy for multiple waste
violations. The Vander Hoff’s settled the case with the state and agreed to build a one million
dollar treatment system. But Vander Hoff isn’t convinced that his dairy was at fault, and thinks
that people’s concerns over his dairy are overblown:


“If we had an issue or had done something wrong the first people that want to correct it is us. We
live in this area. So why would we do anything to harm it?”


Vander Hoff is upbeat about the new treatment system. He says it will save the dairy money in
the long run.


The Sierra Club’s Lynn Henning says she’s skeptical of the new treatment plant. She’ll continue
to take water samples and put pressure on these farms to handle their manure better. In the end,
she doesn’t think these big farms have a place in agriculture. She’d rather see farms go back to
the old style of dairying, where the cows are allowed to graze, and the number of animals isn’t
so concentrated.


But farm researchers say because consumers demand cheap prices, these large farms are here to
stay and there will be more of them. Because of this, the experts say we can expect more
conflicts in rural America.


For the GLRC, I’m Mark Brush.

Related Links