Agricultural runoff from farms and ranches in the Snake River Plain and many other areas has crippled the ecology of the river. After the first irrigation dams on the river began operation in the first decade of the 20th century, most arable land bordering the Snake River was cultivated or turned to pasture, and agricultural return flows began to pollute the Snake. Runoff from feedlots was dumped into the river until laws made the practice illegal. Today fertilizer, manure and other chemicals and pollutants wash into the river and greatly increase the nutrient load of phosphorus, nitrogen, and fecal coliform from failing septic tanks, wastewater treatment plants, broken sewer lines, and animal waste.

The land has been transformed into an industrial landscape, from which natural features, wetlands, forest patches, and wildlife have been largely obliterated. Proper application of the Clean Water Act could bring these regions back to balance with only minimal adjustments in land use. Muddy creeks and sloughs can be restored by simply bringing back the natural canopy to river bottoms and bordering fields with vegetated strips to trap sediment and soak up dissolved fertilizer nutrients. Creating a more diverse landscape by restoring natural patterns of streams and rivers would draw wildlife back to land, provide clear and clean water, restore downstream fisheries, and begin the process of reviving our bays and estuaries.
– Bruce Babbit in “At Water’s Edge” from Cities in the Wilderness (2005)

During low water, algae blooms occur throughout the calm stretches of the river, depleting its oxygen supply. Many return flows do not issue directly back into the Snake River, but rather feed the aquifer beneath. Water diverted for irrigation absorbs surface pollutants, then re-enters the ground and feeds the aquifer which has become increasingly laced with contaminants.

Snake River Waterkeeper volunteers monitor water quality to measure progress towards the goal of “restoring and maintaining the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters” as expressed in the Clean Water Act. We believe everyone has the right to a clean river that is safe to fish and swim in.

Clean Water Act Enforcement

The federal Clean Water Act is the bedrock of our work to protect Snake River Basin rivers, streams, and tributaries. We use EPA’s water quality standards, the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”) permitting system, and §303 to evaluate pollution levels in waterbodies. We then use the Clean Water Act’s citizen suit provision to enforce NPDES permits and demand compliance by facilities that otherwise pollute our waterways in violation of the law. Working with a broad coalition of non-profit, government, private, and individual partners, we use the NPDES permitting process, Total Maximum Daily Load (“TMDL”) designation, and the antidegradation program to help develop pollution control and cleanup projects that restore impaired waterways and protect pristine waterways. Snake River Waterkeeper uses all available legal and administrative mechanisms available to protect waterways and people who depend on clean water for drinking, fishing, sustenance, health, and recreation.

Hundreds of facilities dump millions of gallons of pollutants into the Snake River and its tributaries every year. Some of that pollution is illegal, but Idaho allows some of this pollution through Clean Water Act permits. Many of these permits are outdated or contain standards that don’t protect the safety of the river or its users. Snake River Waterkeeper advocates for more stringent pollution discharge controls, monitors water rights and pollution permits throughout the Basin, opposes permits and transfers that threaten fisheries habitat or clean water, reports violations, and litigates when necessary to compel compliance.

Toxic Pollution

The Snake River, and the communities who depend on it, face serious threats from toxic pollution. Every day, thousands of pipes buried under and along the Snake River discharge hundreds of pounds of toxic pollution from cities, industry, and dirty stormwater run-off. Pesticides and heavy metals also enter the river from agricultural runoff and air deposition. We are focused on achieving measurable reductions in toxic pollution in the fish, wildlife, and people of the mighty Snake River by advocating for state and federal laws that responsibly limit toxic pollution and holding illegal polluters accountable for threatening water quality and public health.

Pure Farms, Pure Water

Dairy CAFOs in Idaho are not adequately regulated as required by the Clean Water Act (CWA), and the Idaho Legislature has enacted a series of proposals since 2000 to weaken state regulation and private rights of action related to CAFOs. For example, the Legislature has limited which citizens can comment on CAFO siting, prohibited a state agency from considering odors and health impacts in water permitting, criminalized certain videotaping and photographing of agricultural operations, provided CAFO’s with protection from nuisance lawsuits, and prohibited oversight of CAFO waste management plans by declaring them “proprietary.” Reviews of waste management plans prior to the secrecy laws demonstrated widespread violations of state and federal land application standards. Instead of addressing the violations, Idaho passed legislation to guarantee dairies they would not lose their permits for violating the CWA.

In 2009, EPA backed out of agreements allowing the state to inspect these facilities on EPA’s behalf due to the close relationship between the Idaho State Department of Agriculture and the industry. EPA regulators in Idaho have openly acknowledged that the industry is not in compliance with the CWA. An August 2014 High Country News article sheds light on the completeness of EPA’s regulatory failure: “We know we have large CAFO (feedlot) facilities, but they have made the business decision to not participate,” said Jim Werntz, EPA’s director in Idaho. “Right now we have zero participation in Idaho.”14 The most recent EPA status report shows that none of the 365 agency-designated “Large CAFOs” in Idaho – which for Dairy CAFOs means 700 or more mature dairy cows at one site – have CWA permits. Not surprisingly, and despite notoriously limited water quality sampling, Idaho DEQ’s most recent report shows 36% of Idaho streams require mandatory TMDLs for failing to meet water quality standards. Many of Idaho’s 1,392 impaired waterways do not meet water quality standards due to pollutants commonly associated with CAFOs – sediment, nutrients, and pathogens. Snake River Waterkeeper is working to regain healthy waterways by demanding agency accountability through application of science and law.

It’s time for factory farms to comply with the Clean Water Act. The Snake River region hosts an extremely high density of cattle and pig confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), in which animals are restricted to feeding pens in dirt lots. These factory farms typically cram thousands of animals into warehouse style buildings, creating one of the greatest sources of water pollution in the country, endangering public health, and putting family farmers out of business. The cornerstone of our work is a litigation strategy intended to force compliance with the intent and letter of the Clean Water Act and other environmental laws. Our legal approach is complemented by strong educational efforts and grassroots mobilization. As part of the National Waterkeeper Alliance’s “Pure Farms, Pure Water” campaign, Snake River Waterkeeper engages the courts, legislature, and decision-makers to challenge industrial and agricultural operation to clean up their act, comply with environmental regulations, or face enforcement of the Clean Water Act’s requirements at these harmful sites.

Where are these factory farms?