RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

It's curfew time

Do you know where your watershed is?

"I've got six bulls penned behind a wire and eight flashlight batteries," brags my feed store man, but we both know his system only works as long as the bulls are happy. Fences are pretty much a matter of agreement. Leave critters without things they need, and they'll walk right through.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow summarized human needs in 1968. His "Hierarchy of needs" is usually shown as a pyramid. At the base are the very bases of life. Oxygen. Water. Food. For oxygen, water and food, all God's creatures are in competition.

To satisfy the needs at the pyramid's base, we'll give up higher needs, like safety and self-esteem. Humans will sacrifice everything if physiological needs--oxygen, water, food--are not met. That means we're all in trouble if anyone's needs go unmet.

Think about water. This time of year, we're rich in it. Ice melting off the rooftops and roads. Snow melting into the fields. Drizzle drizzling. Fog settling into the hollows and steaming off the ponds. The grasses and hay are so wet that the animals hardly drink.

It almost--but not quite--makes us forget summer drought or winter mornings when everything freezes solid and we spend hours chopping ice, carrying boiling water to thaw frozen buckets, moving animals to hydrants heated, or freeze-proof.

If we let the animals run out of water, they wouldn't die of thirst right away. First, they'd walk through the fences until they found the water they knew about. If that failed, they'd run to water they could smell.

By that time, fences would not be an issue. They'd be stampeding, wild-eyed, beyond reason, beyond safety, deadly dangerous. Think of that when you hear that twenty-two of the world's nations are dependent on water from across borders. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh share an underground source. Egypt depends on the Nile, which flows first through Ethiopia. King Hussein of Jordan once said that water "could drive the nations of this region to war."

In 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act with the goal of restoring "fishable and swimmable water" for every American. At that time, industrial waste was the target. Remember how the Cuyahoga River burst into flames because of petroleum overload? And the Great Lakes were dying?

Today, some of those industrial insults have been cleaned up and the plants modernized or moved to foreign countries. Taxpayers have swept up after the arrogant, infirm old moguls. As a result, the waterways improved.

The Clean Water Act suggests that we think of ourselves as citizens of watersheds. In other words, the liquid that falls in your place--whether from rain, snow, or the glass in your hand--flows downhill to a larger body of water. You could follow it to a storm sewer or ditch, then to a creek or river where it joins with all the other liquids from your neighborhood and other neighborhoods downstream and upstream.

Watersheds cross boundaries of government or other allegiances. Your watershed probably crosses lines into other counties or states. The U.S. Geological Survey has identified 2,000 watersheds in the nation. You can see the map of watersheds at

You may have seen the stenciled signs on drain grates and gutters: "Drains to stream." It means that whatever you dump or wash into the gutter will eventually drain into a waterway--maybe the place where you like to fish or where the next town gets drinking water. So, rather than pouring used oil or antifreeze or fertilizer in the gutter, you take it to a hazardous waste collection site.

Water is so important that, at a time when the earth's population of humans is double the number it was fifty years ago, we'd better take care of it. And yet we're hell-bent on finding new ways to overload water, abuse it, kill off the micro-organisms that keep it clean. Our industrial food system, paid for with our consumer dollars and our taxes, is the worst example of water abuse we could have concocted.

The old farming texts hardly mention air and water. Nobody bothered to measure how much an animal took in every day. Six gallons of water per horse or cow? One for a hog? A cup for a hen? Needs were easily met by a rain-catching stock pond, a spring or shallow well with a windmill.

Then we began raising animals in confinement, thousands on a single site. In "The Missouri System of Swine Production," researchers describe the buildings, confinement crates and waste lagoons for the modern hog. Using this system, the work of 1,000 farmers is done by a couple of grad students and a whole bunch of plastic pipes.

According to researchers John Hoehne and Dennis DiPietre, the modern hog house, with 600 sows (or mother hogs) needs 31,116 gallons of water per day. That's more than 50 gallons per day per animal, up from a gallon or so on family farms.

Most of the water is sloshed through the hog houses to pick up feces and urine and run them through PVC pipe to cesspools (called lagoons). In the cesspool, the crap rots for a few months, then is pumped onto fields. That's it. That's the modern system. No sewage treatment. No water purification. 50 gallons of polluted water per animal times hundreds of thousands of animals per day.

Hog factories produce so much rotten excrement and polluted water that when it is applied, it can't be absorbed by the land. It runs into the ditches, the creeks, and, finally, the mighty rivers and oceans.

And, the cesspools become overloaded with other manners of trash. When investigators visited Missouri's biggest hog factory in January 1999, they found workers had tossed the bones of dead hogs in the lagoon, and there was a layer of maggot egg casings that drifted up to a foot high.

The factory system is not family farming, but the meat from the hogs raised in these places appears at your local fast food place, pizza house, or other industry food shop, including your scrubbed and polished grocery store. We don't have to participate in that loser's game.

Consumers--and that means all of us--can just say no to factory meats, the same way we say no to dumping antifreeze into the gutter. As citizens of a watershed, it's the least we can do.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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