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Widespread water problems come from humans and livestock

For nearly 20 years, the group I belong to, Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan, has collected water samples around farms and fields where waste from livestock housed at concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) is spread.

The waste (feces, urine and other contaminants) produced by the large CAFOs in western Lenawee (mostly) and eastern Hillsdale counties is roughly equivalent to the amount produced by the city of Boston each day. Using a protocol developed by the U.S. EPA and the state of Michigan, we’ve tested 51 sites for pollutants found in livestock manure — fecal contaminants, excess nutrients found in fertilizers including manure, and other things. We’ve also tested for DNA from humans, cattle, swine and other animals, and for different types of cyanobacteria (also known as harmful algae) and the toxins they produce.

The River Raisin begins here, near Somerset in Hillsdale County. We’re also the headwaters of the Tiffin River (Bean Creek in Michigan) tributary to the Maumee, and the Ottawa River. All these rivers empty into western Lake Erie. What happens here directly affects everything alive downstream.

I’ve seen devastation and majesty, taken hundreds of photos and documented years of change here. I’ve seen manure-contaminated waterways, critical wetlands ruined, and the cut-and-burn of decades-old trees in fields and treelines along fencerows and streams. That protective layer of huge trees with deep roots and thicketed underbrush is irreplaceable. No amount of planted grass strips or rock-filled gabions can replace the wildlife habitat, pollution control and carbon capture lost by this destruction. Value added for one, value destroyed for many.

Based on these experiences, I created “What’s in Your Water?”, a presentation that helps people understand the documented threats to our local surface, ground, and drinking water, and provides resources for people to use. It covers identified problems here in Lenawee, including the dioxane plume, PCBs, mercury, E. coli and other pathogens, biosolids, PFAS/PFOS and EPA Superfund sites, cyanobacteria and cyanotoxins, nutrients, agricultural and industrial pollutants, oil wells, lead pipes in homes, and much more.

Of all our current water problems, fecal contamination (E. coli, Bacteroides) in surface water, coming from humans and domesticated livestock, is the most widespread. Dioxane in groundwater, PCBs in lake and river bottoms, and cyanotoxins produced by cyanobacteria in surface water are by far the most lethal threats. We found excess E. coli, cyanobacteria, cyanotoxins, and excess phosphorus almost everywhere we tested. Phosphorus is the nutrient that cyanobacteria needs to survive. In the Western Lake Erie watershed, this phosphorus comes mostly from agriculture.

My photo album includes pictures of different types of wetlands as well as tree species and rare native plants in their ecosystems, wildlife in the water, on land, in the air. I often see bald eagles and other wonderful surprises out there where everything changes by day or season. The diversity here in Lenawee from the edge of the glacial moraines northwest of the ridge to the ancient Lake Erie bed at the southeast is incredible. You can drive along the divide between the Maumee and the Raisin watersheds on Lawrence Road, just west of Lake Hudson. Visit the Schoonover Waterfowl Production Area. Walk the trail around the Ives Road Fen Preserve, or explore any of the small preserves in Lenawee. Go to the Watkins Lake State Park and County Preserve just north of us in Jackson and Washtenaw Counties. The new Kauffman Nature Sanctuary is west of us, just inside Hillsdale County.

We’re losing too many critical natural habitats. Protective regulations are being rolled back, and agency funding to enforce what’s left isn’t enough. Destructive practices continue. Upgrades to several drinking water and sewage treatment plants and to rural septic systems are desperately needed. Existing and proposed nutrient pollution reduction efforts aren’t good enough; better options are available.

Get up, go outside and see firsthand what’s happening in these remarkable places around you. Do it soon, before they disappear.

Pam Taylor is a retired Lenawee County teacher and an environmental activist. She can be reached at

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