Scientists, environmental and economic groups gathered in Alma on Thursday to discuss rural water quality.
The conference was the first of the Rural Michigan Initiative, which organizers say will begin meeting annually to discuss issues facing Michigan communities.
Part of the day focused on identifying water quality problems related to runoff from agricultural operations.
Murray Borello is the Director of Environmental Studies at Alma College and one of the organizers of the event. He said research has shown water quality in the upper part of the Saginaw River drainage basin is degrading - in part because of an increase in livestock feeding operations.
“It’s changing the habitats in this area, it’s changing the dynamics of the river and the way people interact with the river,” he said. “So it’s an economic issue, an environmental issue, and a health issue.”
Of particular concern is the increase of antibiotics leaking into the environment from agricultural operations - which researchers say is likely to produce antibiotic resistant bacteria.
Dr. John Ikerd is a professor emeritus from the University of Missouri in Agricultural Economics. He said industrial farms - particularly concentrated animal feeding operations- or CAFOs - put pressures on the environment that aren’t well regulated.
“I agree with what has been said here that we need to regulate industrial agricultural as other industries,” he said. “We need to find ways to protect the environment and protect the quality of life of the people that live in rural communities.”
Other attendees were more cautious about using the word regulation - suggesting that the agricultural industry as a whole needs to be transitioned to a more sustainable model.
Collin O’Mara is the President and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. He said rural communities need to find collaborative ways to address water quality without harming the agricultural industry at a time when it is struggling.
“I’d like to see an economy in this region that is incredibly robust on the agriculture side and also has unspoiled natural resources that can basically create a whole series of new industries related to jobs that depend on clean water,” he said. “I don’t think we should have to choose either or we need both and.”
Representatives from the Governor’s office in attendance said while additional regulations around agricultural runoff might be helpful - they aren’t politically tenable at this time.