The federal government is pushing officials in the Beehive State to hurry up and do more about pollution in Utah lakes, rivers and groundwater.
In some cases, Utah's livestock industry will bear the brunt of this pressure - and one environmental group told a legislative committee Wednesday he hopes water quality isn't going to the hogs.Utah water-quality issues are sometimes synonymous with the way livestock is fed, contained and grazed.
Animal waste is another issue.
"We've got the new hog farms in southern Utah. We've got the chicken plant going into Delta. . . . In a nutshell, we don't know enough about this," said Bob Wal-ton of the Utah Sierra Club.
Circle Four hog farm in Beaver County has 300,000 hogs now. It proposes to quadruple its size.
A consortium of farms has proposed an egg-producing facility in Millard County that would house 1.25 million egg-laying chickens.
"It's something the state needs to look at very closely," Walton said.
The state certainly has, explained Don Ostler, director of the state's division of water quality. Exhaustively.
But livestock owners beware: The federal government is cracking down on big livestock farms that are known as "animal feeding operations," like Milford's Circle Four hog conglomerate, Ostler told lawmakers.
The effort is one of three federal initiatives that loom against local officials, along with President Clinton's Clean Water Initiative and a national push to enforce the amount of pollutants allowed into water.
Livestock farms are of particular concern. And Senate hearings earlier this year made the following points:
- Agricultural runoff and nutrients from animal waste are the greatest pollutants in rivers and streams that the Environmental Protection Agency has identified as impaired.
- Manure washed from feedlots is blamed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for impairing fisheries along 60,000 miles of streams. Surveys find animal waste is degrading 1,785 bodies of water in 39 states.
- During the past two decades, the number of coastal waters that host major and recurring attacks by harmful microbes has doubled.
- Runoff of nutrients from farms has created a "dead zone" of low oxygen in the Gulf of Mexico off the mouth of the Mississippi River, where up to 7,000 square miles of water cannot support most aquatic life.
Water pollution is an emotional issue, and examples of abuse are often highlighted in headlines or on news magazine television programs.
Two years ago, 35 million gallons of spilled animal waste killed 10 million fish in North Carolina.
And last year, pfiesteria piscicida, a toxic microbe linked to excessive nutrients from animal waste and farm runoff, killed an estimated 450,000 fish in North Carolina.
The Sierra Club's Walton doesn't want this to happen in Utah.
At a meeting Wednesday of the natural resources, agriculture and environment interim legislative committee, he urged lawmakers to pay particular attention to the problem.
Milford's Circle Four Farm is expanding, and with estimates of up to 2.5 million hogs, Utah has to be careful what the pigs and their waste mean to water, Walton said.
The state has been exceedingly careful, Ostler said.
Utah water and environment officials went to the heart of pig country - to North Carolina, where several hog farms had highly publicized sewage leaks and problems during the past couple of years.
Circle Four came to Beaver County about three years ago and now has 300,000 hogs housed in concrete-floored, self-contained barns. The pigs do not go outside. They stand side by side, and their waste falls into a trough that is flushed periodically with water, Ostler said.
Pipes carry the manure to a network of 82 open-air sewage "lagoons," which are state-of-the-art by official standards. They are built with tight clay and fortified with high density, polyethylene plastic, Ostler said.
The ponds are large enough that they hold the manure for 15 to 20 years. "They don't have to dispose of the waste every year," as is the practice in some areas where manure is spread onto fields.
No groundwater is discharged, and there is no runoff from the business, Ostler said.
Technically the Environmental Protection Agency doesn't regulate these livestock businesses, Ostler explained, except if you're a large corporate livestock owner, if you have a lot of animals concentrated in an area with little natural foliage or if the animals reside close to a natural water source.
In any of these cases, livestock owners need special permits to justify how manure is stored and kept out of local water sources.
Rep. Mary Carlson, D-Salt Lake, said it seemed Ostler's discussion of livestock-generating, water-quality threats was reaction to federal pressure.
"Is the state concerned with this? Are we doing anything at the state level?"
Yes, Ostler said, but state attention has targeted larger farms and livestock operations. "We probably are going to be forced to look hard at the smaller ones in Utah," Ostler said.
Not across the board, he said, but if livestock is close to water, the operations will be scrutinized.
The effort is interlinked with federal scrutiny of polluted water throughout the country.
Thirty states - and Utah is not one of them - have been sued for not working fast enough to identify polluted rivers and lakes and develop a plan for stopping the polluters.
One of the strongest federal pressures is to regulate the amount of pollution any body of water can absorb without exceeding pollution standards, Ostler said.
"Pollutants" can be anything from too much salt to phosphates, bacteria, sediment and organic material that takes oxygen out of water. In nine decisions, courts have forced states to quickly comply with the regulations.
Utah has 154 "impaired" rivers and lakes, Ostler said. It has 12 years to show how it will clean up these waterways.
States have had a hard time arguing for more time or more flexibility, so Utah should be prepared to take fairly immediate action, Ost-ler said.
"It's hard to argue against something that makes that much sense. It's motherhood and apple pie."