Erath county CAFOs

Erath County's Booming
Dairy Industry Pollutes
Texas' Waterways


CAFOs This week the Texas Toxic Tour takes us to the heart of Texas' dairy country: Erath County. Erath is home to over 200 dairy feedlots--many of which may be described as factory farms which pollute nearby water and sicken nearby neighbors with airborne disease and horrible stenches. Texas ranks number one in the country for total animal waste production each year, creating twice as much manure as the number two state (California). Overall, the state's animal production facilities are creating an estimated 280 billion pounds of manure each year whose storage and disposal can be a serious threat to air and water quality and human health. This is the story of Pat Wilson, a small farmer who has fought for years to protect his family and his community from these concentrated corporate animal feeding operations.


CAFOs Polluting
Texas' Waterways

Erath County, Texas is home to a large dairy industry which has become increasingly concentrated over the last few decades. In 1988 there were an estimated 150 dairies in the county and by the mid-1990s the number had grown to approximately 250. At the peak of the industry's growth, it was estimated that approximately one dairy per month was being added in the county.(1)

These confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in Erath County produce as much as 1.8 million tons of dairy animal waste each year which threaten to contaminate the region's water sources.(2)

"Most of the people that come here with those big CAFOs are from out of state or out of the country...they build factories. It's not a mom and pop milking operation. They milk 1,500 to 2,000 cows every day," explains Pat Wilson, a farmer who lives with his wife and children in the midst of several dairy feedlots in Erath County. "The reason all the outsiders from California come here is that they were catching so much heat out there because of the problems, especially the water problems."

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Animal waste from Erath County's dairy facilities is handled in a variety of ways, including "dry waste" systems, "liquid waste" systems, or a combination of both. In a dry waste system, dairy cattle are raised in open lots where manure is scraped and piled up and then transported to nearby farmland for spreading onto the soil. Before the waste is hauled off, run-off from the manure piles may be directed through a channel to a lagoon system.(3)

In a liquid waste system, dairy cattle may be housed in small stalls lined with bedding. The animals excrete directly into a waste gutter which is flushed with water and sent to a lagoon. (4)

Dairy facilities may also have a second waste gutter in the milking parlor which also flushes through to the lagoon. Improper management of lagoons and dry waste run-off, as well as lagoon overflow from rainfall events, all contribute to water contamination in the region.

Ammonia and hydrogen sulfide from the waste results in an intense stench for miles around. The smell often makes life next to a CAFO unbearable. "They ran two elderly couples completely out of their homes because of the smell," says Pat during a drive between his home and the nearby F&R Cattle feedlot. "This time of day, the flies would be so thick on your screen it looked like your house was black on the inside."

The Bosque River Watershed At Risk

CAFO The North Bosque River Watershed is located in Erath County. The Bosque River also drains into Lake Waco, a drinking water supply for the City of Waco. Water quality in the Bosque River Watershed is being degraded due to the enormous quantity of animal waste that is produced by dairies in the region which is not properly managed by the dairy CAFOs. A 1992 report published by the US Department of Agriculture Soil Conservation Service determined that 190 miles of the North Bosque Watershed and 25 flood prevention structures were adversely affected by contaminated water from dairy run-off.(5)

The Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board and the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) have also documented water quality problems.(6)

And in 1995, the Texas Institute for Applied Environmental Research (TIAER) at Tarleton State University began testing sites in the North Bosque River watershed above Hico, Texas for fecal coliform. TIAER determined that the application of dairy manure to nearby fields and farmland was correlated with substantially elevated fecal coliform levels in the river system.(7)

This pollution threatens the quality of the City of Waco's drinking water which is supplied by the Bosque River at Lake Waco.

TNRCC Turns a Blind Eye to CAFO Pollution

For years, Pat Wilson complained to the TNRCC about the smell of F&R Cattle and animal waste flowing into the creek that ran through his property. Because the state environmental regulatory commission--the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission would do nothing to enforce environmental standards or permit restrictions for F&R, Pat hired an independent water monitoring firm and found that fecal coliform counts in his creek were running from 50,000 units per 100 mililiters to millions and even billions of units per 100 mililiters--literally off the charts. "Every time it would rain they would send somebody out to collect samples... the most they ever got of fecal matter was in the billions, too numerous to count...The maximum is supposed to be 200 parts per mL," Pat explains.

The Fouling of Waco's Water

The cumulative impact of Erath County's numerous dairies is taking its toll on Waco's drinking water supply. As many as 110,000 dairy cattle-approximately 25% of all dairy cattle in Texas-are located in the Bosque River region upstream from Lake Waco.(8)

Excessive nutrient loading (primarily phosphorus and nitrogen) from dairy waste into the Bosque is transported to Lake Waco and, under the right conditions, may result in an algae bloom-an explosive growth in algae production in the water. These micro-organisms produce chemicals which can quickly transform drinking water from crystal clear and tasteless to smelly and distasteful.(9)

There are also concerns that dairy waste contamination may pose more serious health consequences. For example, the Texas Department of Health has tested Texas water sources for Cryptosporidium, a disease-causing parasite passed through animal feces which causes intestinal disorders in humans.(10)

CAFO Waco residents have been complaining for years about the quality of their drinking water. One solution would be to lessen the cumulative environmental impacts of multiple dairies in the region by limiting the growth of new and existing dairies. However, TNRCC has been slow to address the cumulative impacts issue. In one measure implemented several years ago, TNRCC began designating Dairy Outreach Program Areas (DOPAs) in eight counties of the state, including Erath County and the Bosque watershed area-areas that have been impacted by dairy CAFO waste. But the program does almost nothing to mitigate dairy pollution. It does not prohibit new dairies from locating in the watershed, nor does it limit the expansion of existing dairy CAFOs. Instead, it merely requires operating permits for dairies in the region that house more than 300 animals (something that it already requires for 1000+ capacity facilities) and requires 8 hours of animal waste management training every two years for dairy owners/operators.(11)

No other substantive action has been taken by the agency to address water pollution problems in the region.

While Other States Shut Their Doors to CAFOS, Texas Welcomes With Open Arms

Washington, Minnesota, Georgia, North Carolina, Kansas, and Iowa have all passed strict CAFO regulations in the last three to four years. Other states have found the health and environmental threats posed by CAFOs so overwhelming that they have imposed moratorium on any new operations. These states include Kentucky (1997), Mississippi (1998), North Carolina, and Georgia (1999).

In addition to lax, if not non-existent regulation of livestock facilities in Texas, the Bush-appointed Commissioners (one of whom comes from the farm and cattle industries) at the TNRCC would like to extend their Texas friendliness even further to factory feedlot operators. In 1998, the TNRCC issued public notice of new permitting rules for CAFOs in which the agency would issue one "general permit" for CAFOs in a region or for the whole state. Under a general permit, most CAFOs would no longer be permitted individually--they would only have to file notice of "intent to operate" under the general permit. There would be no opportunity to include site-specific provisions as is now possible under individual permits. There would also be very little opportunity for public comments or legal challenges with a general permit. Public comment would be solicited every five years.(12)

Pat has seen small farmers and cattle raisers in his area driven out, and quality of life decrease due to the influx of huge CAFOs. He lost his home to the banks after a prolonged legal battle to bring F&R Cattle into compliance. "The state of Texas should have been liable for what happened to us," laments Pat. "But you can't sue the state of Texas. You've got to get permission to sue them."

Join Texas PEER soon for another stop on the Texas Toxic Tour.


  1. TWC, Non-Point Source Water Pollution Management Report for the State of Texas, August 1988, p. 226; Texas Institute for Applied Environmental Research (TIAER), Dairy Map of Erath County Area, August, 1994.
  2. Brazos River Authority, Intensive Survey of the North Bosque River (Segment 1226), October 1993, p. 38.
  3. McFarland, Anne M.S. and John M. Sweeten, "Odor Assessment of Open Lot Dairies," Presented at the 1993 International Winter Meeting of the ASAE, Paper No. 934553 (ASAE: St. Joseph, Michigan, December 14-17, 1993), p. 2.
  4. Ibid.
  5. US Dept. of Agriculture Soil Conservation Service, Upper North Bosque River Watershed Plan and Environmental Assessment, August 1992, p. 10
  6. Cross Timbers Concerned Citizens, Documented Data of the North Bosque River, Segment 1226, November 1994, p. 4.
  7. Hauck, Larry, "Fecal Coliforms: Their Presence & Meaning," in: Bosque River Advisory Committee, Briefing Papers (Stephenville, Texas, January 23, 1996), pp. D-3, D-4.
  8. Scott Shepard, "Waco to get help in waging water war," Waco Tribune-Herald, February 26, 1997, p. 1A.
  9. Mike Wallace, "A Matter of Taste: Opinions of Waco water run hot, cold," Waco Tribune-Herald, February 9, 1997, pp. 1A, 8A.
  10. Ric Jensen, "Is Cryptosporidium a Problem in Texas?" Concerned Citizen Report (Cross Timbers Concerned Citizens), Vol. 5, No. 3, June 1997.
  11. 30 T.A.C. 321.33(g); 30 T.A.C. 321.41(a)(1).
  12. Animal Factories: Pollution and Health Threats to Rural Texas," Consumers Union and Sierra Club, May 2000 p. 28.

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