Terra incognita: the unknown risks to environmental quality posed by the spatial distribution and abundance of concentrated animal feeding operations
Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) pose wide ranging environmental risks to many parts of the US and across the globe, but datasets for CAFO risk assessments are not readily available. Within the United States, some of the greatest concentrations of CAFOs occur in North Carolina. It is also one of the only states with publicly accessible location data for classes of CAFOs that are required to obtain water quality permits from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); however, there are no public data sources for the large number of CAFOs that do not require EPA water quality permits. We combined public records of CAFO locations with data collected in North Carolina by the Waterkeeper and Riverkeeper Alliances to examine the distribution of both permitted and non-permitted CAFOs across the state. Over half (55%) of the state's 6646 CAFOs are located in the Coastal Plain, a low-lying region vulnerable to flooding associated with regular cyclonic and convective storms. We identified 19% of CAFOs ≤100 m of the nearest stream, and some as close as 15 m to the nearest stream, a common riparian buffer width for water quality management. Future climate scenarios suggest large storm events are expected to become increasingly extreme, and dry interstorm periods could lengthen. Such extremes could exacerbate the environmental impacts of CAFOs. Understanding the potential impacts of CAFO agroecosystems will require remote sensing to identify CAFOs, fieldwork to determine the extent of environmental footprints, and modeling to identify thresholds that determine environmental risk under changing conditions.