Published in the WINNIPEG FREE PRESS, SATURDAY, DECEMBER 30, 2000
By Helen Fallding
Alberta Manure (Water) Pollution Hoists Red Flag
LETHBRIDGE, Alta. -- Water quality problems in Alberta's "feedlot alley" could serve as a warning to Manitoba as the province jumps whole hog into intensive livestock production. Halfway through a five-year study on the Oldman River basin, participants say Manitoba might still have a chance to avoid the cleanup problems southern Alberta faces after more than a decade of feedlot expansion. Feedlots in a 500-square-kilometre area North East of Lethbridge have the capacity to hold about 700,000 cattle -- the most intensive cattle feedlot environment in Canada.
"It's a unique research environment where we should be able to answer the question as to how do we make industry more sustainable and are there limits on the... density of that industry," said Dr. Paul Hasselback, chief medical officer of health for the Chinook Health Region.
A panel appointed by the Manitoba government to look into the province's expanding livestock industry visited Lethbridge this fall during a fact-finding tour of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Chairman Ed Tyrchniewicz said the panel plans to deliver recommendations to the province soon. He expects the report to be released to the public early in the new year.
Brent Paterson, head of Alberta Agriculture's irrigation branch, said phosphorus is the nutrient that builds up too quickly in soil treated with livestock manure. If Alberta switches to phosphorus-based regulations, about five times as much land will be required for manure spreading, he said. "If Manitoba starts there, there's less potential to run into the problems we've run into here."
Manitoba's farming regulations currently ignore phosphorus, which can cause toxic algae blooms if it washes off into streams.
The $2.5-million Oldman River Water Quality Initiative was launched after an earlier federal-provincial study revealed significant surface water pollution and some contamination of shallow aquifers. "We did not think we were going to find anything to address," Paterson said.
Since that wake-up call, Alberta Agriculture's focus has shifted from value-added agriculture to food safety and environmental sustainability, he said. The region also has higher than normal rates of E. coli and other intestinal infections. The Manitoba government has been promoting value-added production -- mainly in the form of intensive hog farming -- for at least five years. Hasselback said he is perturbed that Manitoba decided to proceed with hog industry expansion before addressing the underlying issues.