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Environmentally Sensitive ‘Driftless’ Region Highlights CAFO Concerns

Clay Masters


Thanks to tight competition, hog farmers are feeling a push to expand or get out of the business. That means indoor confined animal feeding operations – or CAFOs – are growing even in the most environmentally sensitive areas.

Chris Wasta sports a red ball cap, hip waders and carries a homemade bamboo fly rod. He owns a small business that makes specialty timber frames up here in northeast Iowa’s Winneshiek County near Decorah. He’s an avid fly fisherman and on this day, he takes time out of his morning to cast a line on bear creek, with the backdrop of sweeping limestone bluffs.

Credit Clay Masters / IPR
The brown trout is one of three trout species anglers try to catch in northeast Iowa.

“Most of the year when the leaves are on the trees you’re barely aware how rocky the terrain is around here,” Wasta said as he walked down to Bear Creek.

Like many in the area, Wasta is concerned about growing hog industry’s impact on the water supply here. This part of Iowa is in a swath of the Midwest that includes Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois called the “Driftless” region. Iowa Fisheries biologist Bill Kalieshek, with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, says the trout streams are here because underneath the ground surface… there’s limestone.

“Surface flow can percolate into the limestone, it goes down into the groundwater,” Kalishek said. “It then remerges as springs, you don’t have this in the rest of the state because you don’t have this really shallow limestone layer right underneath the soil.”

This kind of topography is more environmentally sensitive to manure spills from mismanaged CAFOs and spills, of various sizes, happen in this state and others every year. 

“Something goes wrong in a system and there’s a catastrophic failure of the way they handle manure in the system and tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of gallons of manure can get put into a stream,” Kalishek said.

It’s because of that possibility people in the county were upset when ag-company Millennium announced it would expand its operation to house more than 4,000 hogs. And that’s a pretty big CAFO – the Iowa Pork Producers say an average facility houses 2,400 hogs. The Winneshiek County board of supervisors tried to block the expansion permit. Winneshiek County Supervisor Dean Thompson brought their concern to the state’s Environmental Protection Commission.

“We felt that given the location of that animal feeding operation near bear creek watershed,” Thompson said. “And given the public input it was part of our responsibility to pursue the question and ask why it should be expanded.”

Millennium can expand because the company is doing nothing to violate Iowa law. Eldon McAfee, a lawyer who represents the company, says there are extra safeguards put in place in this kind of topography, including a concrete pit that stores the manure.

“From this type of confinement operation, Iowa law just says no discharge, period,” McAfee said. “Nothing gets away, it has to be designed and operated that way.”

That stored manure has an added bonus for farmers in the area. Chuck Gipp, the Director of the Department of Natural Resources, lives in Decorah. He says that stored manure has an added bonus for grain farmers in the area. The former Republican state legislator grew up on a dairy farm up here and says technology has improved immensely since he was young when manure just ran off into the streams, now the manure is stored and benefits neighboring farms.

“With confinements you capture that liquid. Handled properly it can be good soil nutrient and it’s better than commercial fertilizer,” Gipp said.

Ultimately, the Environmental Protection Board gave the company the green light to expand. Millennium Agriculture isn’t wasting anytime; it plans to break ground soon. But that potential from a catastrophic spill still concerns many residents in Decorah. 

“It affects our drinking water. It affects everything we do,” said Tom Murray, who retired here to get away from Chicago. “Water is everything to us. For life.”

Which explains why in Decorah and other communities co-existing with CAFOs, water is under constant scrutiny.

Go on a trout survey with DNR fish biologists in Iowa's driftless region.


Clay Masters is the senior politics reporter for MPR News.