Hoping for a quick thaw to escape the winter blues? Not so fast.
A fast melt of accumulated snow could harm Michigan waters. The problem: Winter application of manure to farm fields.
Rapidly melting snow runs off frozen ground and heads toward lakes and streams. It can carrying with it manure that sat on top of the snow.
“It’s certainly a possibility with this much snow and especially if we have a fast melt,” said Janet Kauffman, vice president for Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan. “It’s serious if there’s melt on the surface but the ground is frozen (and) it eventually flows off.”
Snow accumulation in the state has been above average this year, National Weather Service meteorologist Jared Maples said. Grand Rapids and Muskegon have more than 40 inches above yearly averages, while Lansing has more than 15 inches above the yearly average.
The amount of water in the snow varies by location, Maples said, although areas lower in the state might have higher volumes. Currently, Grand Rapids has an estimated 5.6 inches of water in the snow, he said.
While Maples said it’s difficult to foresee what kind of melt the state will have, indications are the coming weeks will remain cold.
If manure reaches lakes and rivers, bacteria could harm fish and other aquatic creatures, said Karen Tommasulo, a public information officer with the Department of Environmental Quality.
Phosphorous in manure causes algal blooms that can rob the water of oxygen. Other nutrients and bacteria could contaminate water and kill fish, Kauffman said.
The International Joint Commission recently recommended that winter manure spreading be banned near Lake Erie, which has had issues with algal blooms in recent years.
The binational agency advises the U.S. and Canada on issues involving waterways that they share.
Spreading manure in the winter is high risk and should be banned, Kauffman said.
Farmers are advised to avoid spreading manure in the winter if possible.
Not all farmers spread manure in the winter. But they might have to if they lack storage for it or have winter crops, such as winter wheat, which need the nutrients, said Laura Campbell, agricultural ecology manager for the Michigan Farm Bureau.
Campbell said phosphorous contamination has many origins and that only one is farming.
Those with insufficient storage space are typically smaller farms, Campbell said.
Depending on farm size and whether it is an animal feeding operation, the smaller farms might not be required to hold permits for spreading manure, said Nicole Zacharda, enforcement specialist with the Department of Environment Quality Water Resources Division. Those that are required to hold the permits, known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs, are required to have room enough for six months of manure storage. There are almost 250 of those in Michigan.
Farmers should distribute manure at least 150 feet from any surface water and avoid putting the manure on fields with slopes, said Shelby Bollwahn, livestock environmental educator with Michigan State University Extension.
People can report runoff to the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s spill response at 1-800-405-0101 and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s Pollution Control hotline at 800-292-4706.
Farmers who cause a runoff problem that pollutes the water could be fined between $2,500 and $25,000, Zacharda said.
The Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program helps farmers prepare and avoid runoff by teaching best practices and helping determine ideal fields for winter manure application.
Program manager Jan Wilford said 600 of Michigan’s about 22,000 livestock farms are in the program and have had no issues polluting Michigan water in 12 years.
“I don’t think it’s something to panic about,” Campbell said. “Our farmers are really aware of the water patterns.”
Banning the practice would also lead to farmers spreading manure only twice a year, creating a higher risk for large amounts of pollution if runoff occurs at those times, Wilford said.
However, some critics of the practice are still concerned.
“There is a fundamental problem that we can collect so much liquid waste and then try to spread it on fields,” said Anne Woiwode, state director of the Sierra Club’s Michigan chapter.
Woiwode said although some say that banning the practice would hurt small farms and force them out of business, industrial agriculture practices have put small farms in this position.
Bollwahn said while warmer weather and potential rain could create higher risk for runoff, the farmers have the tools to deal with potential issues.
Besides following best practices, once runoff is identified, Zacharda said farmers can use sand to stop the flow or pumps to remove the manure from water after it has sunk to the bottom.