The Debate on C&H: It's All About Management Objectives
I'm not sure I know anyone that thinks they could do without farmers. Well, I don't discount there are some great homesteaders that don't rely on the agricultural community at large, but I'm not one of them. I've tried growing my own vegetables before. That didn't turn out well. I'll probably always rely on purchased foods to survive. But most people do, so I probably won't lose too much sleep over that fact, even though I will always be envious of those capable of living off the land on their own.
While the necessity for large agriculture is a heated debate topic, even that is not part of this argument. We're talking about environmental sustainability and natural resource management.
A section of my comments on the no-discharge permit for C&H Hog Farms in the Buffalo River watershed focused on the topic of how a large hog factory could never be sustainable in that area. The only ones who would argue that fact are those that have a different measure of sustainability or a different goal in mind. However, the only actual question at hand is whether a large hog CAFO such as C&H will have a negative impact on water quality and result in Big Creek and the Buffalo River not attaining their designated uses.
Before we delve in too far, it's necessary to take a moment to have a brief crash course in water quality standards and the intent of the Clean Water Act (CWA).
A systematic plan was laid out for states to help them define and meet their water quality goals to achieve the intent of the CWA: restoring and maintaining water quality. The first step in that process is defining one’s goals. In the case of water quality standards, these goals are referred to as designated uses. These uses include such things as fishable, swimmable, and drinkable uses, which in the state of Arkansas are coined “aquatic life”, “primary contact”, and “domestic water supply”. But these are the very basic uses that we believe should be attainable for all waterbodies. For outstanding national resource waters that are greatly valued by society for a variety of reasons that necessitate a designation geared at protecting exceptional qualities, we give special designations such as Extraordinary Resource Waters (ERWs) or Natural and Scenic Waterways. Very few waters receive such revered designations, but those that do should be protected with pride and regarded as our state treasures.
To protect designated uses, the next step is then to define water quality criteria that are stringent enough to protect the most sensitive use of a waterbody and be based on sound scientific rationale. Criteria can either be narrative (e.g. “oil, grease, or petrochemical substances shall not be present in receiving waters to the extent they produce globules”) or they can be numeric (e.g. “pH between 6.0 and 9.0 standard units are the applicable standards for streams”). But when we set criteria that are well below site-specific conditions found in high-quality waters, we run the risk of degrading those systems. Allowing such degradation would make it impossible for us to maintain high-quality waters. That’s why another key component of water quality standards is the Antidegradation provision.
Antidegradation provisions include a framework (i.e. policy) and methodology for deciding if, when, and how water quality that exceeds that necessary to protect fishable/swimmable uses can be degraded by regulating activities and when that water quality must be maintained. But we have to be realistic and acknowledge that sometimes the social and economic benefit of a proposed activity (e.g. facility) will necessitate the lowering of water quality. Along with proving the benefit of allowing degradation, one must also provide an analysis of alternatives that evaluates the feasibility of utilizing advanced treatment technology.
While drafting my comments on C&H Hog Farms, it became apparent to me that our natural resource managers may be forgetting why we give select rivers esteemed designations, such as ERWs, in the first place. All of our waterbodies in the state simply cannot be ERWs - that would hinder the economic potential of Arkansas. However, that's why we designate select areas recognized as being the more useful to our state as a whole if we manage them for the qualities for which they received higher designations than they would be for other management objectives. And, especially, when it comes to the Buffalo River, the recreation potential alone is more valuable than the agricultural potential of the watershed. That also highlights the necessity of an antidegradation implementation plan. Our state needs to do a much better job thinking about what exactly our natural resource management goals are, and thinking through the trade-offs of approving or denying certain land use practices before we can effectively utilize our natural resources to enhance our economic potential.
It's important to the citizens of Arkansas that we know what will have short and long-term payoffs (promoting short-term economic growth over long term environmental impacts) so we can accurately assess proposed activities from a risk management perspective. Simply putting an antidegradation plan in place without an overall goal of what you want to manage watersheds for, and without actually visualizing what that will mean for how we regulate activities and foster a diverse economy in the state, does make the process seem arduous. However, that's why we have to talk about and define our plans. Defining your plan is completely meaningless if you don't understand the overall intent of the plan.
Below is an excerpt from my public comments on C&H Hog Farms No-Discharge permit that highlights the necessity to consider the natural resource management goals that have been outlined when making permitting decisions.
Although ADEQ ignores the “and its watershed” portion of the Extraordinary Resource Water definition due to difficulty in making management decisions in that regard, permitting of this large hog factory still undoubtedly ensures the degradation of Big Creek and the Buffalo River. By permitting a facility that is not sustainable in this watershed, ADEQ is thereby limiting the number of sustainable farms that could potentially operate in the watershed. The necessity to continue adding land application fields will only persist to accommodate the waste generated from this one facility that only employs less than ten individuals. Future options will either lead to transporting the waste out of the watershed entirely, which will result in burdensome costs to the permittee and pose a serious risk to the environment should a likely accident happen, or will result in the conversion of more forest land to pasture. Permitting a facility that encourages the additional conversion of land to pasture should at least benefit more individuals than a few. If ADEQ had an Antidegradation Implementation Plan in place and required an Analysis of Alternatives, I think it would be obvious that there are better options for both the permittee, the Buffalo National River, and Arkansas’ tourism industry.
By relying on land application calculations that allow the application of nutrients in excess of agronomic needs, the excess nutrients will either build up in the soil or be transported to surface and groundwater through overland and subsurface flow. Obviously, phosphorous buildup in the soil has its own set of issues, but when we are talking about protecting the Buffalo National River, which will ultimately be the sink for excess nutrients that are not up taken by terrestrial crops, it is necessary to evaluate the risk to sensitive receiving streams. And it has been well accepted that measuring surface water nutrient concentrations is not as environmentally protective as measuring nutrient loads when trying to manage an entire watershed or groundwater basin.
Also, relying on chemical measures of water quality alone to evaluate changes in stream ecosystems ignores nutrient cycles and disregards basic aquatic ecology principles of trophic interactions. Reactive nitrogen and phosphorous in the water column aren’t the endpoints of concern when one is trying to protect water quality. Uptake of nutrients by plants such as algae (generally the most common form of submerged vegetation) and emergent vegetation, such as water willow, can have a significant impact on aesthetics and recreational quality of a waterbody by stimulating plant growth. Aquatic life beneficial uses are impacted by the change in food web dynamics that result from increasing plant productivity (the result of increased nutrients), but they are also impacted by the oxygen depletion that results in response to increased photosynthesis and decomposition in the waterbody.
The whole premise of regulating large-scale productions versus small scale productions, whether it be through construction stormwater permits administered based on size of area disturbed, or through NPDES or no discharge permits for CAFOs based on the number of animals at a facility, is to limit infringement on individual landowner rights while ensuring large corporations and industries do not disproportionately impact shared resources. This concept is also the very basis for antidegradation implementation policies and the necessary consideration for weighing social and economic impacts against environmental impacts. While some might take the majority of the comments focusing on the importance of preserving the scenic beauty of the Buffalo National River as simply appeals to emotion, drawing such conclusions fails to connect the dots between the purpose of actively managing watersheds through regulatory avenues and tools water quality administrators have been given to protect our Outstanding Natural Resource Waters.
There is no textbook approach to managing natural environments. Adaptive management and best professional judgment are always going to be necessary when protecting our resources. The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, as well as every other management agency, realizes this. That is why it is built into virtually every single piece of law, regulation, and policy administered by the Department there is always some clause that allows discretion by the Director. Now is the time to use that discretion. Sustainability has majorly differing definitions depending on the context. Think of dams. We all recognize that dams may be a sustainable source of energy (ignoring maintenance costs), but dams prevent a sustainable fishery. I have no doubt that the state of the art facility currently in operation at C&H Hog Farms is sustainable in the context of recycling water, feed, and air, or whatever it may be – but it is not environmentally sustainable if your goal is to protect the Buffalo River. You have to weigh the risks in every decision. We cannot protect the recreational sustainability of our first national river, which was designated for its recreation potential and scenic beauty, by permitting facilities that don’t even provide enough social or economic benefit to outweigh the negative environmental effects. Not only due to the tourist dollars that are brought into the state by the beauty of the Buffalo River, but also the number of jobs that rely on the Buffalo River remaining a favored destination, it’s imperative that we understand what we are managing this watershed for. We designate beneficial uses to our waterbodies to define our management goals and actions to achieve those goals. While I have no doubt denying this permit for a facility that is already in operation, but never should have been permitted in the first place, will not be without its pushback; it must be acknowledged that we have already set our management goals for the Buffalo River watershed. We are to protect it for its “scenic beauty, aesthetics, scientific values, broad scope recreation potential and intangible social values”.