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In the 1990s, a busy grandparent picked up and moved from the hustle and bustle of Milwaukee to a quiet and rural Wisconsin property, in Cleveland. 

It wasn’t a blind decision. Russ Tooley and his wife had owned property on the spectacular Lake Michigan shoreline for over a dozen years. Stunning views, a beautiful beach, dazzling wildflowers, whitetail deer and native grasses on a grand scale persuaded them to build a new home on the property.

It was 1996, to be exact. The year Israel elected Benjamin Netanyahu, the royals Princess Diana and Prince Charles divorced, and the New York Yankees won the world series. It also happened to be around the same time confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) were setting up in Wisconsin. 

“Some problems in Lake Michigan started at the same time the CAFOs were starting,” Russ remembers. “We were having fish kills that could be directly attributed to the CAFOs. Beaches were being closed because E. coli was in the water, and the tourism industry was in jeopardy. Then in 2000, cladophora (dangerous algae) was beginning to grow very rapidly along the Lake Michigan shoreline.”

By 2005, the beautiful natural lake that had lured Russ to the area nine years earlier was covered in cladophora, a thick, hair-like alga that stinks like manure, kills or displaces other aquatic life, and clogs up water intake systems. People couldn’t swim for fear of ingesting harmful bacteria and it was all getting worse before it was getting better. 

“You could literally walk on top of it, and it would be three feet thick,” Russ says. “And if you broke through where the rotting had happened, it smelled bad, kinda like manure. It was right in front of my house.” 

Russ Tooley breaking apart a mass of cladophora in his backyard (Photo courtesy of Russ Tooley)

Russ’s granddaughter Olivia Sanderfoot also remembers the algae. 

“I remember being super bummed as a kid because I wanted to go swimming, and you couldn’t if the algae was that thick. I also remember being on a raft to get beyond the algae; it was like paddling through mud. It was really gross.” 

The pollution from the CAFOs didn’t only affect the water. The air quality suffered too. 

“The stench was so bad that windows needed to be shut,” Russ remembers.

Working together for clean water and air

Russ knew something had to be done. But he also knew he couldn’t do it alone. 

“I got this stench in my backyard and nobody’s doing anything about it,” he says. “But one person isn’t going to make change very readily. So we formed a group called Centerville CARES.”

Centerville CARES—Citizens for Air, River, and Environmental Solutions—partnered with an environmental law firm and sought resource help from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Water Institute. CARES started collecting water samples in the streams feeding the lake to test the nutrient and bacterial levels and show that phosphorus rich manure was a serious problem. 

Uncertain if it was from household sewage or geese or cattle, they raised money to test where E.coli was coming from using DNA analysis. They then knew that cow manure was a major contributor. 

They also hired experts to help figure out how the manure was getting into the lake. They discovered that farmland in the area was on top of an aging, hand-dug, clay tile drainage system installed a century earlier to quickly relieve the land’s poorly draining soil of its water. But in this case, it was rapidly funneling liquid manure produced by CAFOs and spread onto farmland into creeks that fed into Lake Michigan. 

“We tried to figure out where concentrations of phosphorus [from liquid manure] would be because the driving thing with the algae is having something like phosphorus to make it grow,” Russ recalls. 

Russ measuring pollutants with a probe in 2007 (Photo courtesy of Russ Tooley)

CARES continued sampling and found high phosphorus levels and unsafe counts of E. coli. They sent their data to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The results changed everything.  

“The DNR started looking at rules for when CAFOs could spread liquid manure,” Russ says. “They required farmers to have some kind of tillage happen to the soil so the manure wouldn’t go directly into the water. 

Now there is no spreading of manure on frozen ground and there are cover crops. CAFOs were very new in Wisconsin when C-CARES was active and me and my neighbors had to suffer through the process as CAFO farmers learned new techniques.” 

Over the years, CARES worked with the local dairy farmers and other partners to find a way to keep valuable manure and the phosphorus in it on the land and out of Lake Michigan. 

The DNR took the matter seriously and started requiring farms to manage their manure responsibly and testing water for E. coli. Residents began to see their Lake improve. Residents started swimming again, and recreational fishermen stopped seeing dead fish floating around while they cast their lines. 

Environmental problems affecting the Great Lakes do not result from a single source. Lead from fishing sinkers, mercury contamination, zebra and quagga invasive mussels, and invasive fish in addition to agriculture pollution all contribute to a changing lake ecosystem.

Dairy for days

Globally, cattle are the number one agricultural source of the greenhouse gas methane, a chemical that warms Earth’s climate 30 times more strongly than carbon dioxide. There is public pressure from environmental and animal rights activists for the public to consume less beef and dairy and for industry to scale back large feeding operations like CAFOs in favour of smaller, more sustainable ones. 

But for a state known as “America’s Dairyland,” and one that is home to more than 1 million dairy cows, the industry is a crucial economic driver for Wisconsin, generating around $45 billion each year and employing over 20,000 people. 

(Photo courtesy of Austin Santaniello on Unsplash)

While Russ admits that ideally, there’d be fewer CAFOs and more cows on the land, he understands that supply, demand and employment are also part of the picture. Having grown up on a small farm himself, he can relate to the dairy farmers who are trying to make a living and do the best they can to feed their families. 

“I’m not sure there’s enough land to have all of our cows on grass,” Russ says. “It’s not a total solution because there are so many people, and there’s such demand.”

People to people 

CAFO owners and CARES haven’t always seen eye to eye, yet the local dairy farmers did take CARES seriously and worked with regulators to adjust their practices and mitigate manure runoff. The reason behind the cooperation had to do with who was in CARES.

It wasn’t just Russ and his friends complaining about their beloved waterfront. It was a collection of residents from different backgrounds, with different political ideologies, who understood the importance of farming in their area and had a shared connection to the water of Lake Michigan and its surrounding land. 

“The changes were a result of pressure by ordinary neighbours and advancement in farming science,” Russ says. “Most people wouldn’t have jumped to an environmental cause. But we had a shared problem, and that is the reason we had some success.”

CARES has since dissolved and having had some time and distance to reflect, Russ is proud of what they accomplished. Fresh ground coffee in hand every morning, he looks out his living room window onto his backyard to a mostly cladophora-free shoreline and can smell the fresh air. Still like he thinks some things could have been done differently. 

“One of the lessons I learned is when you’re in an adversarial role, try to keep it person to person,” Russ says. “We did have a few significant wins, but I think we could have been more effective if we had realized right at the beginning it’s people to people instead of lawyer to lawyer.”

Russ Tooley out on a Lake Michigan beach walk (photo courtesy of Russ Tooley)