Home, Home On The Latrine

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For years I have been trying to persuade people that George W. Bush, although no Einstein, is not stupid. Now comes word he is returning to Texas for most of August. He could have gone to Kennebunkport, Maine, instead. I give up. If you put his brain in a duck, it would fly north for the winter.

But it's a dry heat in north-central Texas. Especially since the drought started. The President plans to spend his vacation on his ranch near Crawford, a no-traffic-light town. Mayor Robert Campbell says they have been told to expect Bush and his attendant media horde for 21 to 23 days.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, there's something that should perk up his interest in environmental issues. Welcome home, Mr. President, there's cow doo-doo, as your daddy used to say, in the water. Bush's weekend ranch is on Rainey Creek, which runs into the Middle Bosque River. About six miles away is the North Bosque River and two counties over is Erath County, home to at least 250 factory dairy farms called CAFOs, for confined-animal feeding operations. The CAFOs milk as many as 2,000 cows a day, and the county has about 110,000 dairy cows that produce an estimated 1.8 million tons of cow poop a year. The stuff has got into the North Bosque and its tributary streams, which feed into Lake Waco, the drinking-water source for the city of Waco. The local water in Erath County shows increasing levels of nitrates, ammonia and fecal coliform bacteria. A farmer hired an independent water-monitoring firm and learned fecal coliform counts in his creek were running from 50,000 units per 100 milliliters to millions and even billions of units. The maximum is supposed to be 200. The increased phosphorus downriver threatens the water quality for the whole area. John Young, editor of the Waco Tribune-Herald, says the water is not fit for carp. He also says there have been so many taste and odor "events"--the euphemism for bad days--that the town should fly a green flag whenever the water tastes like water.

Texas, we are proud to report, ranks No. 1 in the country for animal-waste production, creating an estimated 280 billion lbs. of manure annually, which is twice as much manure as California, the No. 2 state, and comes to 40 lbs. of manure per Texan per day. The state is covered in glory.

In Stephenville, the Erath County seat, there's a fiberglass statue of a cow named Moola standing by the courthouse; beneath her udder is a sign boasting that the county sells $220 million worth of milk a year. But milk prices are sagging, and some dairy farmers are threatening to move to the Panhandle. A lot of folks wouldn't mind seeing them go. Many of the CAFOs are owned by people from the Netherlands, who came in droves for the cheap land, high milk prices and lack of regulation. One result is growing animosity in the region against the Dutch, which, if you didn't know about the cow poop, might strike you as an odd development. The industrialization of dairies, a national phenomenon, mirrors changes in the poultry and pig industries. In the Panhandle, the problem is pig poop, with exactly the same results, except there they are mad at the Japanese, who own many of the corporate farms. The pig poop gets into the playa lakes, round depressions in the high plains, and is starting to affect the Ogallala Aquifer. In East Texas it's chicken factories.

Other states have passed strict cafo regulations in the past three to four years, and at least four states have imposed a moratorium on any new CAFOs. But Texas is famous for not regulating much of anything, especially agriculture. While Bush was Governor, the Texas Environmental Protection Agency made matters worse. In 1998 the agency changed the rules so factory-feedlot operators could get one general permit for a region, and not have to get individual permits or provide site-specific information. In December 1998 the Natural Resources Defense Council issued a report detailing how cow manure in central Texas is poisoning drinking-water supplies by fouling underground aquifers as well as rivers, lakes and streams. Erath County sits directly on top of the recharge zones for the Paluxy and Trinity aquifers. That means even well water isn't safe. The problem was so bad by November 1999 that the state EPA reversed itself, and increased registration requirements for new CAFOs. There are suits and countersuits and a lot of hard feelings about this in Waco. The state legislature just voted $3 million for a clean-up program for a problem that shouldn't exist in the first place. The nice thing about Texas is that the problems here are so concrete, as it were. Let the chips fall where they may.

Molly Ivins is based in Austin and co-wrote the best-selling Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush