Canadian Consulting Engineer

Eat well, but pay

Just as this issue was due to go to press, the Walkerton Inquiry Commission issued Part II of its report on the famous disaster that crippled Canada's faith in its drinking water (see page 24).Among h...

June 1, 2002   Canadian Consulting Engineer

Just as this issue was due to go to press, the Walkerton Inquiry Commission issued Part II of its report on the famous disaster that crippled Canada’s faith in its drinking water (see page 24).

Among his many recommendations, Commissioner Justice O’Conner said municipalities must practise completes cost recovery for managing their water supplies — in other words they must either raise the money by taxes, or by user fees, and not rely on other subsidies. Environmentalists prefer the user-pay approach, as they believe there is no better way of encouraging people to cut down on their consumption.

Some of the most controversial recommendations in the Walkerton report relate to agriculture. Here too there are intimations that we must pay a lot more if we are to continue to enjoy our rich western lifestyle without destroying the environment.

Though the cattle manure that contaminated the well in Walkerton came from a small family farm, the Commissioner has used the opportunity to suggest changes that — if implemented — would have a big effect on mass-production livestock operations. He recommended that all large, intensive farming operations (as well as farms in sensitive locations) should be forced to register individual water source protection plans.

While soil erosion, pesticide use and over-fertilizing are big environmental issues facing agri-business, the picture that raises the most hackles among critics is the one of rows of livestock crammed in stalls, pumping out millions of gallons of sewage. There are 12 million pigs in Canada and 14 million heads of cattle — nearly as many animals as people (31 million). The average population of a pig farm in Quebec is 1,567 heads. Some operations are like small cities — a fire in Saskatchewan last year, for example, killed 14,000 animals in one barn.

The beasts munch merrily away all day — or not so merrily, depending on your ethical point of view and whether you think animals should be kept in such artificial, tightly-packed quarters (personally I don’t). What comes in comes out: a pig produces far more sewage than a human being. According to the federal Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development’s 2001 report, livestock in the Great Lakes Basin generate the same manure as would be produced by 100 million people. Yet most farms still use rudimentary ways of dealing with their waste. “Muck-spreading” over the fields is still the standard disposal method.

A spokesperson at the Canadian Pork Association in Ottawa told me there are several pilot studies going on in Quebec investigating new, more advanced sewage treatments for these intensive farming operations. But he cautioned that such systems are extremely expensive and probably beyond the reach of most Canadian operations.

No matter what the costs, it’s hard to believe that factory farms will be able to continue for long without being required to have the kind of sewage treatment facilities we insist on for human populations. If the price of meat has to rise to reflect the added costs, then so be it. What we’re learning about drinking water in North America can apply to anything — the user of a commodity should pay the full environmental costs of producing it.


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