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CAFOs: Risk to Well Water

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Posted on May 03, 2016

shutterstock_164350595Livestock farming today is dramatically different from what it was just a few decades ago. Concentrated animal feeding
operations (CAFOs) are now the norm. In case you’re not familiar with the term, the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) defines CAFOs as “a production process that concentrates large numbers of animals in relatively small and confined places and that substitutes structures and equipment (for feeding, temperature controls, and manure management) for land and labor.” The most significant public health issue surrounding CAFOs is the amount of manure produced by these operations. Manure from CAFOs can contain a number of potential contaminants, including nitrates and pathogens, disease-causing microorganisms. As the growth of CAFOs continues, and as they are more frequently located in geographic clusters, the potential risk to local drinking water sources also increases.

It is estimated that livestock animals in the U.S. produce upwards to 1.4 billion tons of waste each year (EPA, 2005), and while manure is valuable as fertilizer in farming operations, in these quantities, it presents a serious problem. It’s far more manure than they can conceivably use as fertilizer, so the other choices are to spread it or store it. And while the EPA does monitor and regulate these operations, that doesn’t mean groundwater contamination doesn’t occur. Accidental contaminations can and do happen. In fact, in 2000, according an EPA study, 29 states called out animal feeding operations as sources of water quality impairment.

How can contamination happen?

Potential routes for contamination include:

  • Runoff from land application of manure
  • Leaching from manure that has been improperly spread on land
  • Leaks or breaks in storage or containment units
  • Holding lagoons overflow as a result of rain

All of these situations can lead to contamination of groundwater sources and of private drinking water wells. But the most troubling part is that this contamination can go unnoticed until people start getting sick. You won’t see, smell, or taste these harmful contaminants in your water. And while public health agencies repeatedly reinforce the need to test well water at least once a year for nitrates and bacteria,  the reality is that the majority of wells are not tested that often, if at all.

NSF Class B systemsIf you want to know that your water is free from harmful microbes 24/7, consider installing continuous disinfection. An ultraviolet (UV) water disinfection system can protect your family’s water without the addition of chemicals like chlorine. For added confidence, look for a system that has been NSF certified. This may even be a requirement in some jurisdictions. Consulting a water treatment professional in your area is a great way to get the right system for your particular water conditions.

And if you’re concerned about nitrates in your water, a water treatment professional can help identify the proper solution. Nitrates are particularly concerning if there are any infants or a woman who is or is considering becoming pregnant in the household.