Agriculture has made great strides in reducing nutrient movement from our farm fields even though the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) relentlessly aims for tighter standards. From our vantage point, the EPA should turn more attention to major metropolitan areas whose leaky sewer lines and undersized sewage treatment facilities continue to put excessive waste streams into our waterways.
One has to look no farther than Milwaukee, Wis., just a little over an hour drive from our main office. It presents a unique case study in nutrient flow because the vast majority of the water that drains towards its Lake Michigan shoreline flows from urban point sources.
During last year's severe drought, Wisconsin's collective Great Lakes shoreline still had the second-worst water quality rating in the nation. According to the EPA, 14 percent of all water samples fell short of recognized national health standards. Wading into deeper water, Milwaukee's South Shore Beach ranked among the nation's worst beaches as 43 percent of its water samples exceeded 235 colony forming units of E. Coli per 100 milliliters of water.
While nonpoint source runoff from vast spans of asphalt and concrete, leaky sanitary sewer connections and wildlife are among the culprits, they all pale in comparison to the largest revolving problem - dumping untreated wastewater and even worse, untreated sewage, directly into rivers and lakes.
This April alone, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District dumped 1.1 billion gallons of untreated wastewater to prevent sewage from backing up into residential basements. Of greater concern was the 52.6 million gallons of sewage, yes human waste, directly deposited into waterways. Unfortunately, Milwaukee isn't the greatest offender on the Great Lakes. Both Chicago and Cleveland reported greater outflows.
While agriculture has often been cited for water quality issues, we believe major urban areas are not held up to the same standards. Everyone should do their fair share to clean up our nation's waterways. Since 1995, cities have reduced contaminants they discharge into waterways by 85 percent during dry weather. That is a start.
Those of us who farm ground know we must be prepared for excessive rainfall and rapid snowmelts as both lead to nutrient run off. Unfortunately, many major cities remain ill-prepared to handle those extreme events properly.