Potential for water contamination is always among the biggest concerns of rural residents near concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), sometimes called “factory farms.”
In a project teaming BGSU with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the Wood County Health Department, Bowling Green students are helping to develop new techniques intended to identify sources of bacteria in water from various county waterways.
Those sources can be humans and other animals as well as livestock, notes Dr. Robert Midden, chemistry and director of the Chapman Community. Students in the residential learning community are collecting the samples from different locations, which also include septic systems and municipal wastewater treatment plants. DNA analysis of the samples by the U.S. Geological Survey will tell whether there are specific DNA markers present that are unique to bacteria from the different sources, Midden explains. If those markers can be identified, he adds, they in turn can be used to identify contamination culprits.
Among the locations being monitored are select ditches and creeks upstream and downstream from fields where manure from dairy CAFOs is applied. Dairy-based pollution would be higher downstream from the farm, Midden points out, so if bacteria counts aren’t higher downstream, or if DNA markers indicate the bacteria isn’t coming from cows, the dairy probably isn’t the source.
The project is still at a “very early stage,” he says, but so far, no conclusive evidence has been found of surface water problems emanating from the county’s two operating dairy CAFOs—Manders, at Range Line and Maplewood roads southeast of Weston, and Reyskens, on Cygnet Road north of Hoytville. Operations are pending at two other dairies—Naomi, west of Jerry City, and Green, southeast of Bowling Green.
“We don’t know what we’re going to find,” says Midden, who has met the owners of Manders Dairy—in operation since 2002—and has background data from the Reyskens site, taken before operations began there last year. “This is not a witch hunt; we’re not out to find things that don’t exist.”
The American Public Health Association has called for a moratorium on construction of new CAFOs. Midden urges caution, saying that since construction is allowed, the next best thing is to monitor the mega farms, trying to collect the best scientific data possible. County officials can be informed of any problems, enabling them to take steps to minimize adverse effects.
With much of a recent $50,000 allocation from the county commissioners to the health department going toward the project, “that’s an effort by the commissioners to address concerns of citizens of the county,” he adds. A one-year grant approved earlier this fall is providing $30,000, with the USGS matching a $15,000 award from the Ohio Lake Erie Commission’s Lake Erie Protection Fund.
In addition, BGSU’s Partnerships for Community Action contributed what Midden calls “crucial” funding of $5,000 for campus testing for total fecal coliform and E. coli, high levels of which indicate contamination by fecal material from animals or humans. Samples also go to a commercial testing laboratory in Northwood to check for nitrates and nitrites, ammonia, nitrogen and total suspended solids.
Uncertainty about local CAFOs aside, Midden asserts there are definitely failed septic systems in Wood County—a “major problem” in some areas, he says—and a number of contaminated water wells. Contamination from abandoned oil wells has been documented, and because the wells can provide a conduit to groundwater, contamination from other sources, including manure, also seems reasonable, though evidence is needed, he says.
Concerns also exist about municipal wastewater emissions and application of wastewater sludge, as well as CAFO manure, to farm fields. But those issues just haven’t been systematically studied yet, although some work is under way, he says.
On the front line of the current study are roughly 15 BGSU undergraduates, most of them first-year students in the Chapman Community, who are divided into four groups that go out about once a week, sampling at two or three sites per trip.
One of the students, Alysia Martin of Toledo, says the work has changed her opinion about CAFOs, which she was “totally against” when she got involved with the project. “I thought that I would be able to help find information to hold against them,” admits Martin, an early childhood education major.
“But instead, what I have learned is that not all of them are completely bad,” adds the BGSU sophomore, who has also visited Manders Dairy. “Now I am neither for them or against them. My interest lies strictly in what types of contamination are occurring and where it is coming from.”
Also noting the possibility of groundwater pollution from faulty septic systems and other sources, she says the project “has taught me a lot about relying on facts. In this case, the results are everything.”
That scientific approach is a desired outcome. “They have to learn the science concepts, but they also learn how science is actually practiced,” says Midden. The students gain a sense of the amount of work needed to get accurate, reliable data and, at the same time, the satisfaction of doing it, he summarizes. Chain-of-custody records are being maintained so their results are admissible as evidence in court.
“They take it seriously because they know it’s real,” Midden says, explaining that the students understand their responsibility to do the job well because people are relying on it. “This is about as real as it gets.”