Threat: Pollution from massive hog farm

The Buffalo River is one of the longest undammed rivers west of the Mississippi. It was designated as the nation’s first National River by Congress in 1972 to preserve its clean water and other outstanding values. But today, a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation feeding 80,000 hogs per year generates waste equivalent to a city of 30,000 people along a Buffalo River tributary. Despite public outcry, millions of gallons of hog waste are sprayed on fields and stored in manure ponds, threatening the river’s clean water. The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality must deny the project’s permit for continued operation in order to safeguard this national treasure for today’s communities and future generations.

The River

Winding its way through the forested Ozark Mountains of northwest Arkansas, the 153-mile long Buffalo National River flows through soaring bluffs, deep pools and gravel bars that lure millions of visitors annually from all over the world. People come to camp, paddle, hike river trails, and enjoy the vistas, clean air and sparkling waters of the Buffalo National River. In 2015, more than 1.46 million tourists visited the Buffalo National River generating $62 million and employing more than 960 people from tourism related activities (e.g., cabins and hotels, restaurants, kayak/canoe rental).

The upper reach, flowing from the headwaters through the Upper Buffalo Wilderness to the boundary of Ozark National Forest, is protected as a Wild and Scenic River. From the national forest boundary to its confluence with the White River, the Buffalo is designated as a National River and managed as a unit of the National Park Service. The Park Service’s mandate is to, “preserve, conserve, and interpret a clear, clean, free-flowing river and its Ozark Mountain setting of deep valleys, towering bluffs, wilderness and pastoral landscapes.”

The Buffalo River supports more than 300 species of fish and wildlife including beaver, elk, black bear, smallmouth bass and catfish. The federally-endangered gray bat, Indiana bat and Northern long-eared bat are found in the karst cave networks surrounding the river.

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The Threat

Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) are one of the largest contributors of pollutants to streams and waterways across the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 2013, a 6,500-head hog CAFO was quietly permitted and constructed by C&H Hog Farms, Inc., unbeknownst to the public. The hog CAFO, including massive indoor feedlots and two manure filled ponds, sits on a hill along one of Buffalo National River’s main tributaries, Big Creek, less than six miles from the mainstem of the river.

Each year, millions of gallons of liquid hog waste are sprayed onto pastures and fields, some of which lie in the floodplain. This manure spreading is particularly harmful in areas where topsoil is thin and the underlying geology is a porous limestone (karst) that is prone to fissures, sinkholes and rapid transmission of groundwater into the water table. Dye tracing studies around the hog CAFO have shown that water can travel under mountains across 13 miles of the watershed, due to the porous karst geology. Consequently, any contaminants in the manure fields or ponds are having far reaching effects, including polluting groundwater wells and threatening endangered species. Water quality indicators, including an unprecedented algal bloom in 2016, E. coli bacterial concentrations exceeding allowable limits and dissolved oxygen concentrations below allowable limits, suggest the Buffalo National River and its fish and wildlife are being negatively impacted by the nutrients produced by the CAFO.

Already, paddlers, swimmers and recreational fishing enthusiasts are seeing changes in water quality as algae cover miles of river bottom. Despite public outcry, noted elevated levels of E. coli bacteria in nearby streams by the National Park Service in 2015, and ample evidence of pollution in other areas where these types of facilities operate, the hog CAFO has continued to generate raw, untreated sewage that equals the output of a small city. Tourist-related businesses, such as float services, restaurants, cabin rentals and motels, worry those visitors will stop coming if the water continues to degrade.

What Must Be Done

Despite rising national protests and evidence of high E. coli levels and low dissolved oxygen on Big Creek and the Buffalo National River, the CAFO is seeking to change from a federal permit to a state permit that would allow it to continue to operate in perpetuity. In 2017, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality will consider the issuance of a Regulation 5 permit for this CAFO. The Buffalo National River flows in Arkansas, but it belongs to every citizen of our country. Continued support from a well informed and concerned citizenry will be necessary to stop this permitting change and ensure the river’s protection for future generations.