Three years after it started, Denver Water’s Lead Reduction Program is getting a big boost from more than $76 million in federal funding.
The funding will help fast-track the program, replacing thousands more old, customer-owned lead service lines in the next few years than had been originally anticipated.
The state approved allocation of funds to Denver Water in October, and the Denver Board of Water Commissioners formally accepted the funds Dec. 7.
The money will be spent in 2023 through 2025 and is expected to replace up to 7,600 lead service lines, shortening the 15-year program by 1.5 years. Thanks to the new funding, between 3,000 and 5,000 additional lines will be replaced in 2023 — on top of the nearly 5,000 lines already planned for replacement next year.
Since the program started in January 2020, Denver Water has replaced more than 15,000 lead service lines. The lead lines are replaced with lead-free, copper lines at no direct cost to the customer.
“This infusion of federal money means we will be able to replace thousands more customer-owned lead service lines at a faster pace than we had originally planned, and ultimately shorten the length of the biggest public health initiative in Denver Water’s history. This groundbreaking program is supported by all our customers across our service area,” said Jim Lochhead, Denver Water’s CEO/Manager.
“Removing these lines is the most effective way to eliminate this source of lead exposure, and we are committed to this program until every lead service line has been removed. We’re grateful for the opportunity provided by this funding.”
The water Denver Water delivers to customers is lead-free, but lead can get into the water as it passes through a customer’s internal plumbing or water service line that contains lead. The service line is the small pipe that connects to Denver Water’s pipe in the street and carries water to the customer’s home. Lead can cause serious health problems if too much enters the body, whether from drinking water or other sources.
Denver Water’s groundbreaking Lead Reduction Program aims to replace nearly 5,000 customer-owned lead service lines every year. When the program started, Denver Water estimated there were between 64,000 and 84,000 lead service lines in its service area and expected it would take 15 years to remove them all.
The addition of federal money will help Denver Water exceed its annual target in 2023 by an extra 3,000 to 5,000 lines. For every 4,500 additional lead service lines replaced using the federal funding, the overall length of the program will be one year shorter.
Replacement work will take place in parts of many neighborhoods across Denver in 2023, including Baker, Globeville, Sunnyside, Barnum West, Athmar Park and Capitol Hill.
An initial map of the 2023 replacement work areas is available at denverwater.org/Pipes. The replacement work prioritizes areas with vulnerable, at-risk populations and disproportionately impacted communities while also taking into account planned construction activities, schools and child care centers.
Lead was a commonly used material for water service lines across the U.S. through the mid-1900s and is frequently found in Denver homes built before 1951.
The replacement work is done by contractors through the Lead Reduction Program and by Denver Water crews, who replace any lead service line found during scheduled pipe replacements or during repair work on a broken water main.
In total, Denver Water was approved for $76,123,628 from the Colorado Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, which will receive money from the federal bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed into law by President Joe Biden in November 2021. The funding Denver Water received is a low-interest loan that the utility will repay, with $40 million of the loan’s principle forgiven immediately as allowed by the legislation.
The state will receive federal funding from the Environmental Protection Agency to address lead in drinking water every year for five years, beginning in 2022. Denver Water intends to apply for funds in the future and, if approved, will be able to accelerate the replacement program even more.
The EPA also has approved a continuation of the Lead Reduction Program, via a variance from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, following a review of the progress made in its first three years.
“Denver Water’s approach to tackling lead in drinking water has been remarkable and an example for other communities across the country,” said EPA Regional Administrator KC Becker, in an announcement.
“Thanks to new funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law the utility’s customers can expect an even faster lead service line replacement schedule delivering health protections for children and adults across the Denver area.”
Lochhead thanked EPA and Denver Water’s community partners for working with the utility to ensure the successful implementation of the program.
“Denver Water’s first priority is sustaining our communities by protecting the health of our customers,” Lochhead said.
In addition to the installation of a new, lead-free, copper water service line at no direct cost, customers enrolled in the program also receive water pitchers and filters certified to remove lead.
Filtered water should be used for cooking, drinking and preparing infant formula until six months after the lead service line is replaced. The utility also has changed the water chemistry, raising the pH of the water it delivers, to better protect customers from the risk of lead.
This has been a huge effort involving many areas of Denver Water, and we couldn’t have done it without the support we’ve received from our customers,” said Alexis Woodrow, who manages the Lead Reduction Program for Denver Water.
“Our customers enrolled in the program allow us into their homes to replace their old lead service lines, and they are patient with all the construction work that accompanies the replacement process. We’re also excited that in a recent survey, 83% of customers said that they use the filters we provide to filter water for cooking, drinking and preparing infant formula.”
With the federal funding, the work surrounding the replacement process will touch more homes and neighborhoods in 2023.
“We’re grateful for all the support we’ve received for this program, from our customers to our community partners and our elected officials,” Woodrow said.
“We’re all working to protect our customers now and for generations to come.”
Regional precipitation was a mix of above to much-above normal conditions in northern and western Utah, western Wyoming, and northwestern Colorado, and below to much-below normal conditions in eastern Utah and Wyoming, and most of Colorado. Temperatures were below normal for the entire region. Regional snowpack is near normal for a majority of Colorado and Wyoming and is slightly above to much-above normal in Utah. Regional drought has slightly expanded, with a slight expansion in Wyoming, a slight improvement in Colorado, and a very slight improvement in Utah. La Niña conditions are expected to persist through winter, but will likely return to ENSO-neutral conditions by spring. NOAA December precipitation forecasts suggest an increased probability of above normal precipitation for most of Utah and Wyoming, while probabilities for above normal, below normal, and equal chances are split for Colorado.
November precipitation was above normal (125-200% of average) throughout much of Utah, Wyoming, and northwestern Colorado, and much-above normal (200-800%) in western Utah. Precipitation was below normal (25-75%) in eastern Utah and eastern Wyoming, and was below normal to much-below normal (<25%) in Colorado. Record-wettest conditions were observed in Tooele and Box Elder Counties in Utah, and record-driest conditions were observed in Kit Carson, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Bent, and Prowers Counties in Colorado.
November temperatures were slightly below normal (0 to -3°F) to below normal (-3 to -9°F) for the entire region, with pockets of much-below normal temperatures (-9 to -15°F) in northwestern Wyoming and central Utah.
As of December 1st, snow-water equivalent (SWE) was much-above normal in northern and southwestern Utah and slightly above normal in eastern Utah. SWE was near-normal in much of northern Wyoming, above normal in parts of northern and southwestern Wyoming, and below normal in southeastern Wyoming. SWE was near-normal in northern Colorado and below normal in southern Colorado. It was the third snowiest November in Denver in the last 15 years. Most SNOTEL sites above 8,000 ft. reported 2-6” of SWE in Utah and Wyoming, and 1-4” in Colorado.
Regional drought coverage remained unchanged from October to November. Drought has been spatially consistent from October to November in our region (CO, UT, WY) with pockets of exceptional (D4) drought remaining particularly in Sanpete County in central Utah and Sedgwick and Phillips Counties in northeastern Colorado. Extreme (D3) drought has expanded to cover 6% of southeastern Wyoming and 4% of eastern Colorado. D3 drought continues to cover 50% of central Utah, although it has improved slightly. D3 drought was removed from the Green and Snake River basins in western Wyoming.
Record-low flows were observed at several locations, including the North Fork Cache La Poudre, San Juan, and White Rivers in Colorado; and the Bear, Dirty Devil, Fremont, San Rafael, and Sevier Rivers in Utah. Many sites in the region, particularly in Utah, recorded below to much-below normal November streamflows. However, there are also many sites throughout the region with normal streamflows, as well as above normal streamflows at six sites in Colorado, five in Utah, and one in Wyoming. There were a few sites that observed much-above normal streamflows, including Blue River in Colorado and Little Bighorn River in Wyoming.
A La Niña advisory remained in place during November as below average sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies persisted in the equatorial Pacific Ocean and increased in the east-central Pacific Ocean, causing temperatures that were nearly 1°C below normal. SST models predict a 76% probability of La Niña conditions continuing through winter (December-February). However, ocean temperatures are projected to warm by the end of winter and there is a 65% probability of ENSO-neutral conditions by early spring (February-April). The NOAA monthly precipitation forecast for December indicates a 40-50% chance of above normal precipitation for western Wyoming and northern Utah, and a 33-40% chance of above normal precipitation in northwestern Colorado, central Utah from west to east, and most of eastern and central Wyoming. There is an increased probability of above normal temperatures in southern Colorado and below normal temperatures in northwestern Utah and central Wyoming from west to east. There are higher probabilities of below normal temperatures in northern Wyoming. Over this winter (December-February), the NOAA seasonal precipitation forecast predicts an increased probability of above normal precipitation in northern and central Wyoming and a 33-40% chance of below normal precipitation in southeastern Utah and southern to eastern Colorado. The seasonal temperature forecast shows a 33-40% chance of above normal temperatures in southern to western Colorado and southern to central Utah during the winter. The forecast shows a 33-40% chance of below normal temperatures in northern Wyoming this winter.
Significant November weather event: Colder than average temperatures covered the entire region with monthly temperatures ranging from 0 to -15°F below normal for the western U.S. Temperatures were coldest in northwestern Wyoming, where November temperatures were up to 8 degrees below normal in Park, Bighorn, Washakie, and Hot Springs Counties. The majority of Colorado and Wyoming experienced below normal temperatures (bottom 33rd percentile) and the majority of Utah experienced much-below normal temperatures (bottom 10th percentile). In Wyoming, Moose experienced its coldest November on record, Jackson and Lamar Ranger Station experienced their second coldest November on record, and Old Faithful and Tower Junction experienced their third coldest November on record. Denver and Salt Lake City had their coldest November since 2000 with average monthly temperatures of 35.6°F and 37.2°F, respectively. Statewide, November 2022 was Colorado’s 20th coldest November since 1895; temperatures were 3.1°F below the 20th-century average.
In early fall, residents of this desolate corner of southwestern Wyoming opened their mailboxes to find a glossy flyer. On the front, a truck barreled down a four-lane desert highway with a solar farm on one side and what looked like rows of shipping containers on the other. On the back was an invitation.
“CarbonCapture Inc. is launching Project Bison,” it read, announcing a “direct air capture facility” set to begin operations here next year. “Join us at our town hall event to learn more.”
Few had heard about the proposal before receiving the flyer, let alone had any idea what a direct air capture facility was. So the following week, about 150 people packed into a large classroom at Western Wyoming Community College in Rock Springs to find out.
“We are a company that takes CO2 out of the air and stores it underground,” said Patricia Loria, CarbonCapture’s vice president of business development, in opening the meeting.
Loria described a plan to deploy a series of units—the shipping container-like boxes pictured on the flyer—that would filter carbon dioxide from the air and then compress the greenhouse gas for injection underground, where it would remain permanently.
As carbon dioxide levels continue to climb, scientists, entrepreneurs and governments are increasingly determining that cutting emissions is no longer enough. In addition, they say, people will need to pull the greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere, and an emerging field of carbon removal, also called carbon dioxide removal or CDR, is attempting to do just that.
There are companies like Loria’s looking to use machines and others trying to accelerate natural carbon cycles by altering the chemistry of seawater, for example, or mixing crushed minerals into agricultural soils. These efforts remain wildly speculative and have removed hardly any of the greenhouse gas so far.
Some environmental advocates warn that carbon removal will be too expensive or too difficult and is a dangerous diversion of money and attention from the more urgent task of eliminating fossil fuels. Perhaps more troubling, they say, the various approaches could carry profound environmental impacts of their own, disrupting fragile ocean ecosystems or swallowing vast swaths of agricultural fields and open lands for the energy production needed to power the operations.
Yet even as those potential impacts remain poorly understood, the Biden administration is making a multi-billion dollar bet on carbon removal. The administration’s long-term climate strategy assumes that such approaches will account for 6 to 8 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas reductions by 2050, equal to hundreds of millions of tons per year, and it has pushed through a series of laws to subsidize the technology.
The first investments will come from the Energy Department, which is expected to open applications within weeks for $3.5 billion in federal grants to help build “direct air capture hubs” around the country, with a particular focus on fossil fuel-dependent communities like Rock Springs, where mineral extraction is by far the largest private employer. The goal is to pair climate action with job creation.
The money has prompted a rush of carbon-removal-focused companies to fossil fuel communities, from Rock Springs to West Texas to California’s San Joaquin Valley, seeding hope from supporters that a concept long relegated to pilot plants and academic literature is on the cusp of arriving as an industry.
As Loria made her pitch, Lou Ann Varley was listening intently. Varley sits on a local labor union council and spent a 37-year career working at the Jim Bridger coal plant outside town before retiring in 2020. She knows that young workers starting at the plant today won’t be able to match her longevity there, with its four units slated to close over the next 15 years, and hoped Project Bison might offer some of them a new opportunity.
Others weren’t having it. Throughout the presentation, residents listened quietly, sitting in pairs at folding tables in the classroom. Some munched on sandwiches and cookies the company had provided. Others leaned back, arms crossed. But when it came time for questions, they launched a volley of concerns about the potential risks and unknowns.
Who was going to pay for this? Would it use hazardous chemicals? What about earthquakes from the underground injections of carbon dioxide? What would happen if the company went bankrupt, and who would be liable in the event of an accident? Wyomingites are deeply protective of their open landscapes, and many wondered about the impacts of all of the renewable energy that would be required for power.
Direct air capture machines consume tremendous amounts of energy. Project Bison, according to CarbonCapture’s figures, could eventually require anywhere from 5 to 15 terawatt hours of power per year, equal to 30 percent to 90 percent of Wyoming’s current electricity consumption, depending on whether the company can increase its efficiency.
Laura Pearson, a sheep rancher who wore heavy work clothes, was sitting in the back row that night feeling deeply skeptical of the entire premise. Pearson’s family has worked the same land for generations, and she sees the wind farms and solar panels that have started covering parts of her state as a threat to its open range.
“If you don’t think those affect wildlife and livestock grazing and everything else in this state,” she told Loria from across the room, “you’re crazy.”
Loria said the company was working with wildlife scientists and officials to minimize impacts, but Pearson was unswayed.
“I love Wyoming and I don’t want to see it change,” Pearson said after the meeting ended. She said she doubted the company’s intentions, didn’t think carbon dioxide posed such a threat to the planet and didn’t like seeing out-of-state interests, whose demands for cleaner energy have sent Wyoming’s coal sector into decline and are threatening to do the same for its oil and gas, coming to peddle something new. “It’s all about the money,” she said.
A Town With a Storied Coal History
Rock Springs was built on coal. In 1850, an Army expedition found coal seams cropping out of the valley bluffs. Less than 20 years later the Union Pacific Railroad routed the nation’s first transcontinental line through here so its locomotives could refuel as they crossed the Rockies. The mines soon snaked right under the center of town, where the outlaw Butch Cassidy once worked at a butcher shop and earned his nickname.
The rail line still bisects the town, although the old station has been converted into the Coal Train Coffee Depot cafe. A large sign arcs above the tracks outside: “Home of Rock Springs Coal, Welcome.” A stone monument next to the depot lists everyone who died in the mines each year, coming by the dozen in the early 1900s, with names like Fogliatti, Mihajlovic and Papas reflecting all the countries from which men flocked to find work.
Varley started at Jim Bridger, one of the country’s largest coal plants, in 1983 after getting laid off from mining trona, a mineral used in the manufacturing of glass, detergents, chemicals and other products. All but one of the eight largest private employers in Sweetwater County either mine or use the minerals and fossil fuels that underlie this part of Wyoming. As oil, gas and coal operations have shed jobs in recent years, the trona mines have absorbed many of the losses.
Varley began as a laborer, sweeping and shoveling coal or ash, before working her way up through operations and maintenance. Eventually, she helped operate the computer systems that ran the plant. “I loved the job,” she said.
Two years after retiring, Varley still refers to Bridger as “my plant.”
Until recently, her plant was facing the forced shutdown of some of its units for failing to meet federal pollution rules set by the Environmental Protection Agency. But in February, Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon struck a deal to forestall any retirements by converting two of Bridger’s four units to burn natural gas instead. Still, all of its units are expected to close within 15 years.
Wyoming produces about 40 percent of the nation’s coal, so the fuel’s plummeting share in the nation’s electricity—from half in 2005 to about 20 percent this year—has brought acute anxiety to towns like Rock Springs.
“It makes it kind of tough when you know that they’re talking towards phasing out coal,” Varley said. Many people who work at the plant, which employs more than 300, get angry about the prospect, she said. “Especially some of the younger ones, because they hired in believing like me that they would be able to retire from that facility.”
Wyoming officials have spent years trying everything to promote carbon capture technology, which removes carbon dioxide from power plant or industrial emissions, in the hope it could save coal. The state university has mapped its geology for places to store CO2. Regulators won federal approval to oversee the underground injection of carbon dioxide, one of only two states to do so, along with North Dakota. (The EPA oversees the practice everywhere else.) In 2020, Wyoming lawmakers passed a law that tried to force utilities to install carbon capture equipment at their coal plants.
These efforts have not yielded a single commercial carbon capture operation at a power plant, but they do seem to have attracted CarbonCapture Inc., to the delight of state economic development officials.
A California-based start-up, CarbonCapture said it has secured enough private investment to begin work next year on the Wyoming plant, although it still needs to receive state and local permits. Rather than attaching to a coal plant, this project would pull carbon dioxide out of ambient air by passing it through giant fans fitted with a chemical sorbent, which traps the CO2. The sorbent is then heated to release the gas for compression before being reused.
Project Bison would initially capture 10,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, but the company said it plans to expand to reach a capacity of 5 million metric tons by 2030. That higher figure would be orders of magnitude above what any company has achieved so far, yet roughly equal to the emissions of one coal power plant, or less than 0.1 percent of total U.S. emissions of nearly 6 billion metric tons in 2020.
The operations would be financed by selling carbon credits to corporations seeking to offset their own emissions. The company said it has already sold credits at $800 per ton to Cloverly, a carbon-offset marketer, and to CO2.com, a new carbon offset venture of TIME, the magazine owned by the billionaire Marc Benioff.
Varley had gone into the town hall meeting feeling optimistic that the project could potentially provide high-quality jobs while also helping the environment. While she wants the coal plant to continue operating for as long as possible, she knows its days are numbered, and when it closes, it could take more than 300 jobs with it.
Southwest Wyoming is hard country to live in: Varley has spent her entire life here and said “it grows on you like a fungus.” The state has the highest suicide rate in the country, and the decline of fossil fuels, it feels to many, will only make life harder.
“People are looking for ways to maintain our ability to live here,” Varley said.
These disasters have driven many people toward desperate acts of civil disobedience, like a scientist who chained himself to the doors of a private jet terminal. They’ve also pushed many to conclude that carbon removal technologies, however unlikely their deployment, will now be necessary to avoid the worst impacts of warming.
When the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report this year on how to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius, it determined that at least some degree of carbon removal was needed but that the amount could vary drastically, depending on how quickly fossil fuel consumption declined and whether nations adopt more sustainable practices.
The only scenarios that did not include meaningful levels of carbon removal generally required global energy use to decline, which seemed unlikely, especially if there was any hope of supplying electricity to the nearly 800 million people who currently lack it.
“It’s critical to have this tool,” said Jennifer Wilcox, the principal deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management at the Department of Energy, “and we need to have it on the order of gigatons,” or billions of tons.
The last year has brought an explosion of funding to try to make that happen. In addition to the $3.5 billion that Congress allocated to the Energy Department for direct air capture hubs, lawmakers earmarked another $1 billion for research and development this year and, as part of the Inflation Reduction Act, more than tripled the value of a federal tax credit for direct air capture.
United Airlines, Airbus, Microsoft, Alphabet, Meta, Stripe and other corporations have collectively pledged billions more. The billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk has funded a $100 million prize for carbon removal startups. The field is also one of the fastest growing areas of climate philanthropy.
So far, however, hardly any carbon dioxide has been pulled from the atmosphere. The largest direct air capture plant in operation, opened by a company called Climeworks in Iceland, pulls in about 4,000 metric tons of CO2 per year. By contrast, the Jim Bridger plant outside Rock Springs spewed out 10.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2021 alone.
Skeptics have noted how far carbon removal is from making a dent in global emissions. Supporters, however, argue that the rates of growth the industry must achieve to make a difference, while high, are comparable to what solar energy generation has seen since the 1990s.
The rush of funding and attention has prompted a new set of questions about carbon removal technologies. The concerns of many skeptics have moved beyond whether carbon removal can possibly work, to wondering what it would look like if it somehow did.
Displacing Herds of Native Pronghorn
Pearson’s route to town takes her past Wyoming’s first utility-scale solar farm, which was built in 2018. The 700-acre site was cleared of vegetation before the panels were installed and surrounded with a chain-link fence. Now it marks a shiny, incongruous break in the high desert, though it is hardly the only disturbance around, with trona mines in each direction.
The sight of it was bad enough for Pearson and other residents, but soon after the project’s completion, residents noticed herds of pronghorn, a fleet-footed antelope-like animal indigenous to the region, tramping onto the highway. The area that the solar farm had enclosed, it turned out, had been used by resident pronghorn, and the fences shut them out. The companies behind the project sponsored a study, published last spring in a scientific journal, that determined that the animals lost nearly a square mile of high-use habitat, about 10 percent of their core range. Today, the pronghorn’s trails and droppings line the perimeter of the fence that locked the animals out of lands they once called home.
CarbonCapture plans to build its new facility about 20 miles west of the solar farm, a rough and barren landscape of greasewood and sagebrush, and it could eventually need much more solar development to run its operations.
The company has said it will try to minimize the impacts, by choosing lands already disturbed by oil development, for example. But some will be unavoidable. State maps show that the sage grouse, a protected game bird, has core habitats surrounding the area where the plant would be built. Closer to the site, cattle roam on rangeland that is dotted with oil wells and a creek trickles south on its way to the Green River, a tributary of the Colorado.
CarbonCapture said it would initially use natural gas to power its operations while capturing the resulting carbon dioxide emissions, but aims to eventually rely on renewable energy. At full scale, that would require 1,000 acres to house the energy supply, and 100 acres more for the project itself.
The World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank, has estimated that if direct air capture technology reaches the scale envisioned by the Biden administration, about 500 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year by mid-century, the industry would consume more than 4 percent of the nation’s current total energy supply. If all that energy were generated by wind and solar power, that could mean covering an area equal to a small state with turbines and panels.
The prospect alarms Pearson, who said her family has been offered money to allow solar panels on their land, but that they declined. “We would have been set for life, and we said no way. Because we knew what it would do to the wildlife, to our way of life, to Wyoming’s way of life.”
Adrian Corless, CarbonCapture’s chief executive, said that because the project will connect to the electric grid, the new renewable energy development could be located in other parts of the state, or even out of state.
“There’s a lot of opportunity to find the right situations for land use that are aligned with community expectations and needs,” Corless said.
Justin Loyka, energy program manager in the Wyoming office of the Nature Conservancy, said CarbonCapture asked his organization for help in reducing its impacts, and that there were opportunities to do so. But he added that as renewable energy development spreads, some impacts are inevitable.
“The vast majority of Wyoming is some of the most intact ecosystem in the lower 48,” Loyka said. “Wyoming has these wildlife migration corridors that are hundreds of miles long, and that really doesn’t exist in many other places.”
For decades, Americans mostly turned a blind eye to the industrial-scale livestock production operations that churn out cheap supplies of meat and dairy for the masses. Occasional opposition to local pollution problems and the casual animal cruelty that characterize conventional US dairy, hog, and poultry production did little to alter practices that are embedded in the rural landscape.
That may be changing. A wave of frontline resistance is now breaking across the Upper Midwest and around the country as organized campaigns aimed at regulating concentrated animal feeding operations, known as CAFOs, are being felt at every level of government, and in state and federal courts.
Opposition to large livestock operations is more intense than at any time in recent memory, say environmental advocates.
“It’s been building and building,” said Rob Michaels, an attorney for the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC), a Chicago-based legal group, who is working to limit CAFO manure discharges in Ohio and Michigan. “It’s now being raised as a political issue. As a legal issue. As a legislative issue.”
On October 19, the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals issued a ruling that lends legal muscle to a five-year old petition that Food & Water Watch and 36 allies filed to compel the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to update CAFO permitting regulations. The Trump and Biden administrations ignored the 2017 petition. The Court of Appeals said the plaintiff’s petition “raises issues that warrant an answer” from the agency. A Food and Water Watch attorney said the Justice Department has been in touch to schedule a negotiating meeting.
A week later, on October 26, Earthjustice, a nonprofit public interest law group, and 50 allied non-profit and citizen organizations from around the US filed a separate petition calling on the EPA to initiate new rule-making that would require the largest CAFOs, which are significant sources of water pollution, to apply for wastewater discharge permits under the Clean Water Act. The petition asserts that because every CAFO discharges polluting wastes EPA has the authority and duty to require them to operate under wastewater permits.
Calls for moratoriums on new CAFO construction also are being heard by legislatures in Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Counties in South Dakota and Arkansas have issued local moratoriums. The Missouri Supreme Court is set to decide, perhaps before the year ends, whether counties can regulate CAFO development through local public health ordinances.
At least five Wisconsin counties and three towns have enacted temporary moratoriums, and one county is considering imposing a local ordinance next year. Last year the Wisconsin Supreme Court affirmed the authority of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to restrict large livestock farms to protect the state’s water, a rebuke to a 2011 state law that limited the DNR’s authority to regulate CAFOs.
The EPA has identified more than 21,000 large CAFOs across the country but just 6,266 of those operate with wastewater discharge permits under the Clean Water Act designed to control and restrict pollutants discharged into waterways, according to EPA figures.
“EPA is weak on regulations on CAFOs,” said Emily Miller, a Food & Water Watch attorney. “Only a fraction have permits and the permits that do exist are just simply ineffective.”
An EPA spokesman said the agency would not comment on either petition. The American Farm Bureau Federation declined to be interviewed for this article.
The National Milk Producers Federation, though, issued this statement in response to the environmentalists’ petitions. “Regulation of CAFOs require a responsible approach, which sometimes isn’t the case among environmental activists who seek to use regulations to reduce the availability of animal protein products for consumers,” said Jamie Jonker, the group’ chief science officer.”
The restiveness about CAFO operations and expansion in the American countryside is due to the same kinds of disruptions occurring in states like Wisconsin, where 340 large livestock operations have been constructed, most of them big milk and hog production facilities. They collectively house hundreds of thousands of animals.
Wisconsin CAFOS pour billions of gallons of untreated liquified manure every year, and millions of tons of solid manure on hundreds of thousands of farm acres. A study for the Wisconsin Legislature made public in October found that the number of private wells contaminated with nitrates or E.coli, the intestinal bacteria, was expanding steadily and identified the source as agricultural discharges.
CAFOs, though, are the only industrial polluting facilities not required to treat their wastes. The federal waiver for treating CAFO wastes dramatically reduces pollution control and operating costs. It is a primary reason the American livestock sector has rapidly changed from numerous small farms that manage livestock on outdoor pastures and barnyards to many fewer industrial-scale operations where animals spend their entire lives indoors.
And because CAFOs operate on efficiencies of scale, they have played an outsize role in keeping commodity prices low and contributed to the closure of small farms in America.
As CAFOs gained influence, for example, Wisconsin in November counted 6,172 dairy farms, down from 11,260 a decade earlier, according to state figures. A study by the American Farm Bureau Federation found that from 2011 to 2020 Wisconsin led the nation in farm bankruptcies.
Though the Biden administration dispatched the EPA administrator and several aides to Cleveland earlier this year to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of the Clean Water Act, the 1972 statute has not come close to achieving its “fishable and swimmable” goal for American surface waters. The problem is unregulated nutrient discharges from agriculture. In 2016, the EPA identified phosphorus and nitrogen discharges from U.S. farmland as “the single greatest challenge to our nation’s water quality.”
Harmful algal blooms caused by phosphorus discharges from CAFOs now contaminate many of America’s iconic waters, among them Chesapeake Bay, Lake Okeechobee, Lake Champlain, California’s Clear Lake, and Lake Erie. “Somewhere between 88 percent and 94 percent of the problem is caused by these CAFOs, these megafarms and their nutrient nonpoint source runoff. Everyone knows it,” said Wade Kapszukiewicz, the mayor of Toledo, Ohio, which was forced in 2014 to shut down its drinking water plant for three days because of bloom-generated toxins. Half a million residents lost their drinking water supply.
CAFO nutrient discharge is worse in the Corn Belt states: the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska and Kansas. The EPA counted 9,332 concentrated livestock and poultry operations across the Corn Belt in 2021. It is not known how much manure they all produce each year, but it’s prodigious. For comparison the 291 CAFOs in Michigan generate 4 billion gallons of untreated raw liquid manure annually, and millions of tons of solid manure, according to the state environment department.
In Iowa, where almost 4,000 CAFOs operate, nearly every mile of streams and acre of surface water is impaired by nutrients or E.coli. Just 167 Iowa CAFOs have wastewater discharge permits, according to the E.P.A.
The Biden Administration and CAFO opponents know full well that changing the regulatory rules of the CAFO game will be a fierce struggle. Environmentalists, small farm advocates, and E.P.A. administrators under previous administrations, Democratic and Republican, have tried to cross this same ground before and been turned back in federal courts by politically powerful farm groups led by the American Farm Bureau Federation and its allies in the various state and national dairy, pork, poultry, and beef associations.
In 2003, in response to a lawsuit brought by Natural Resources Defense Council and Public Citizen, the EPA issued a new rule that obligated CAFOs to apply for discharge permit unless they could demonstrate that they had “no potential to discharge” damaging nutrients. That rule was challenged by livestock operators, who in 2005 convinced the Second Circuit Court of Appeals to strike it down.
The E.P.A. tried again with a new rule in 2008 that limited the permitting obligation to CAFOs that “propose to discharge” wastes. But in 2011, in a case brought by the National Pork Producers Council and other farm groups, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals struck that rule down, too. In both cases plaintiffs argued the law didn’t give the agency authority to regulate “potential” or “proposed” sources of pollution.
With their petitions and grassroots campaigns, activist legal and non-profit groups are pressing E.P.A. to try again. They assert that every CAFO operating in the United States is a source of “actual” wastewater discharges that require much more effective regulation. “The E.P.A. under its current leadership acknowledges that what we’ve asked for needs to happen,” said Amy van Saun, a senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety, which is a party to the 2017 petition. “I don’t think they have any legal way to say no.”
The Department of the Interior announced today that four Tribal water projects in Oregon and California’s Klamath River Basin will receive $5.8 million through the Bureau of Reclamation to restore aquatic ecosystems, improve the resilience of habitats, and mitigate the effects of the ongoing drought crisis. The funding is made available through Reclamation’s Native American Affairs Technical Assistance to Tribes Program.
Secretary Deb Haaland made the announcement while touring the Iron Gate Fish Hatchery with Governors Gavin Newsom and Kate Brown, Congressman Jared Huffman, representatives from the Klamath Basin Tribes and other officials and stakeholders to celebrate the imminent surrender and decommissioning of the Lower Klamath Project, a four-dam hydropower project on the Klamath River. On November 17, 2022, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued an order approving the surrender and decommissioning of the Project, the culmination of nearly two decades of effort to find a path to remove the dams, open up hundreds of miles of historic salmon habitat, improve water quality, and restore the River and the fishery the Basin Tribes have relied upon since time immemorial. Dam removal activities will begin next spring, with full removal completed in 2024.
“Clean water, healthy forests and fertile land made the Klamath Basin and its surrounding watershed home to Tribal communities, productive agriculture, and abundant populations of migratory birds, suckers, salmon and other fish. But over the past 20 years, the Basin has been met with unprecedented challenges due to ongoing drought conditions and limited water supply,” said Secretary Haaland. “The projects we are funding today – combined with millions of dollars in water and habitat resilience investments from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law – will help restore this once abundant ecosystem for the benefit of all its inhabitants.”
“Reclamation is committed to working with Tribes in the Klamath River Basin on important water resource issues,” said Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton. “This funding will help facilitate collaboration with Tribes as they address the severe and continuing drought impacting their lands.”
Reclamation’s Native American Affairs Technical Assistance Program provides technical assistance to Tribes to develop, manage and protect their water and related resources. The funding announced today is provided to Tribes as a grant or cooperative agreement. The projects are:
Hoopa Valley Tribe, Karuk Tribe and Yurok Tribe, in collaboration with U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Juvenile Salmonid Survival and Migration Rate Study: The project will receive $3.9 million to study juvenile salmon. The Yurok Tribe will estimate specific survival through time of wild and hatchery Chinook Salmon as they migrate through the Klamath Basin under various environmental conditions. The Hoopa Valley and Karuk Tribes will use acoustic tags to monitor juvenile salmonid survival and migration rates from the Scott, Salmon and Trinity rivers and locations on the middle Klamath to Klamath River estuary. The USGS will provide support to the Tribes for this research study.
Hoopa Valley Tribe, Ecological Flow Assessment on the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation: The Hoopa Valley Tribe will receive $554,325 to complete an ecological flow assessment on the Trinity River. The project includes site selection, field data collection, stream gaging and water temperature monitoring.
Klamath Tribes, Upper Williamson River Restoration: The Klamath Tribes will receive $500,000 to assess and plan river system restoration activities on the Upper Williamson River in southern Oregon. The Tribe will assess the existing condition of approximately five miles of the river, develop plans for restoration activities, and install restoration infrastructures. This project advances goals and objectives established in both the Klamath Basin Integrated Fisheries Restoration and Monitoring Plan and the Upper Klamath Basin Watershed Action Plan.
Yurok Tribe, Oregon Gulch Project, Mainstem Trinity River: The Yurok Tribe will receive $864,533 to remove tailing piles, increase floodplain inundation, promote fluvial processes, and reduce the wood storage deficit. The project will also double rearing habitat, improve the aquatic ecosystem, create seasonal surface water connections, increase vegetation biomass and increase the number of trees along the riverbanks.
This funding supplements nearly $26 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law allocated this year for Klamath Basin restoration projects, including nearly $16 million for ecosystem restoration projects in the Basin and $10 million to expand the Klamath Falls National Fish Hatchery.
As part of the Interior Department’s ongoing commitment to partnership and collaboration, senior Department leaders have held several in-person and virtual engagement sessions with Tribes, state and county officials, interagency partners, and water users to discuss near- and long-term solutions related to drought impacts in the Basin.