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Natural Awakenings Charlotte

CAFOs in the Catawba River Basin

Jun 28, 2020 07:28PM ● By Shannon Mc Kenzie
by Brandon Jones, Catawba Riverkeeper

Unlike North Carolina’s eastern rivers, the Catawba is not threatened by large lagoons of animal waste. The state’s portion of the river basin contains only 19 permitted facilities; one swine operation and 18 cattle. Hurricanes are unlikely to cause major breaches and flood barns because of the topography. Instead, the Catawba River has a chicken problem.

At any given moment, there are approximately 32 million chickens on CAFOs upstream of the Charlotte area lakes (Lake Norman, Mountain Island Lake and Lake Wylie). They reside in about 750 operations in approximately 1,050 barns. Each barn holds 20 to 35 thousand of them. These facilities are most concentrated in Alexander and Caldwell counties.  We use round numbers and approximations because these facilities are “deemed permitted.” They are expected to have a Waste Utilization Plan, but not required to file it with the state. There are no initial or regular inspections. Because the waste is combined with sawdust and spread onto nearby fields, they are not considered to discharge. Our Department of Environmental Quality does not have a map of dry litter CAFO locations. We rely on satellite imagery and monthly flyovers to locate new facilities and report violations. 

However, when it rains, that waste is mobilized and can wash into our streams and, ultimately, the lakes. We consistently find elevated levels of fecal bacteria in creeks downstream of spreading fields. Additionally, poultry litter contains high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus which can lead to algal blooms and fish kills.

As part of a statewide campaign with the Waterkeeper Alliance and other state Keepers, we have been collecting water samples, documenting locations and reporting violations. Last year, State Senator Harper Peterson, of Wilmington, introduced a Poultry Study Bill to begin the process of increasing accountability and transparency. Unfortunately, it did not leave committee. For now, individuals can best help by eating less factory-farmed meat and supporting environmental nonprofits such as the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation. Come November, we need citizens to ask candidates about water quality and support those who will help protect one of our most precious resources.


Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation is a 501(c)3 nonprofit based in Charlotte that advocates to protect the Catawba-Wateree River Basin’s lakes, rivers and streams. Location: 715 N. Church St., Ste. 120. For more information, visit, email [email protected] or call 704-679-9494.


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