There has been serious concern for the health of the Pine River for decades. Animal waste that flows into the river from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) through drains and ditches is thought to result in high E. coli levels that pose a threat to anyone who comes in contact with the water.
Gary Rayburn, chairman of the Healthy Pine River group, leads a group of concerned citizens in efforts to educate the community about the environmental issues regarding the river.
He works with Gratiot County, Mid-Michigan District Health Department, Gratiot Conservation District, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and other agencies to improve the quality of the river water, according to the group’s mission statement.
“As a result of our work with Alma College, we have learned that the E. coli levels in the river periodically exceed safe levels,” said Rayburn. “As a result, the Mid Michigan District Health Department posted warning signs alerting people that any body contact with the river was unsafe at times, particularly after rainfall.”
The group’s focus this year is on determining the percentages of E. coli present in the Pine River from animal waste, versus the percentage from human waste.
The algal blooms found at the water’s surface are a result of this waste entering the river and increasing the levels of nitrates and phosphorus.
“The manure that causes this contamination may also contain growth hormones used to increase milk production, antibiotics, additive chemicals, wastes from millhouses, copper sulfate and other contaminants,” said Rayburn.
Once these pollutants enter the river, it is impossible to directly remove them, according to Rayburn. The water from the river that is intended for human use goes through treatment, but the water that is unsafe in the river remains in the river. The only way to prevent unwanted chemicals and bacteria in the river, making it safe for activities like boating, canoeing and fishing, is to prevent those chemicals from entering the river in the first place.
“This runoff from fields runs through drainpipes, creeks and streams that provide a highway to the Pine River,” said Rayburn.
“It comes from more than 80,000 heads of livestock. The waste they generate is the equivalent of at least 500,000 people moving into the county and this would not occur without a massive increase in sewer systems and treatment plants. This kind of treatment isn’t given to agricultural waste.”
It has been suggested that human waste is the primary source of phosphorus in the river, rather than animal waste. The Healthy Pine River group has discovered that there is no scientific precedent for human waste that can create the high phosphorous levels that are detected.
One of Trump’s recent executive orders calls for the rescindment or revision of the Clean Water Rule, which extended more specific protections to waterways such as tributaries and wetlands. These waters also include regularly flowing ditches and drains that lead into the Pine River. Cuts to the EPA also mean less treatment for these waterways
Trump stated, when he signed the executive order, that the EPA changed protections to include “nearly every puddle or every ditch on a farmer’s land, or anyplace else that they decide—right? It was a massive power grab.”
“We are very worried about the potential EPA cuts,” said Rayburn. “We have been trying to get help from the MDEQ for three years, and have been told there isn’t enough money or staff.”
Rayburn says that the group continues to receive paperwork about making requirements, as if to distract from the fact that help is needed.
Rayburn said that the deregulations could lead to health concerns to citizens. There are antibiotic resistant bacteria in the water; if their numbers grow and their resistance increases, harsher chemicals may be needed to kill them before they enter drinking sources.
Despite these major concerns and the threats to Alma’s river that are becoming more and more prominent, the group and Rayburn maintain their determination to protect the water source.
“We view our role as being an advocate for the health of our river, which means we will continue to educate our community and our legislators about the importance of restoring and protecting a precious resource. We need to help people understand the seriousness of the issue.”