Factory Farms, Fouled Waters

Factory farms threaten the health of Illinois’s rivers, lakes and streams. Across the state, large-scale releases of animal waste and other forms of pollution have fouled local waterways to the point where some can no longer sustain important uses such as swimming, fishing, drinking, or the maintenance of healthy populations of wildlife. This case study report highlights five specific instances of factory farm pollution damaging local waterways, and includes policy recommendations for stronger regulation and enforcement of these facilities in Illinois. 


Clean water is critical to the environment, public health and quality of life in Illinois. Factory farms threaten the health of our waterways. Across the state, large-scale releases of animal waste and other forms of pollution have fouled local waterways to the point where some can no longer sustain important uses such as swimming, fishing, drinking, or the maintenance of healthy populations of wildlife.

Since 2002, state documents show at least 80 serious instances of factory farms polluting Illinois waterways. However, because of poor tracking and regulation of factory farms (also known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs), many other instances of pollution likely go unreported, and many that are reported are never prosecuted. 

Illinois should take strong action to stop factory farms from polluting our rivers and streams.

Factory farms produce millions of gallons of waste from swine, poultry and cattle each year. 

  • A single dairy cattle operation with 700 cows generates approximately 105,000 pounds of manure every day, or as much waste as that produced by 12,600 people. 
  • Researchers at University of Illinois estimate that there are around 30,000 livestock operations in the state. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA), around 500 Illinois livestock operations are large CAFOs — each of which may raise several thousand to more than a million animals at a time.

Illinois waterways are routinely polluted by animal waste from factory farms. Waste can run off from fields, feedlots and barns, spill from holding ponds or malfunctioning equipment, or in some cases be deliberately dumped into nearby waterways. 

  • In 2011, nearly 60 percent of livestock facilities contacted or surveyed by the Illinois EPA had at least one spill or other regulatory violation.  
  • More than 672 miles of Illinois streams and more than 25,000 acres of lakes have been polluted by animal feeding operations, making them among the top 10 causes of pollution for both rivers and lakes, according to the Illinois EPA.

Concentrating thousands of livestock animals on just a few acres is an inherently polluting business practice. These industrial operations generate far more manure than they can manage, as demonstrated in the many cases of water pollution documented by the Attorney General’s office in complaints and court orders. For example, according to these documents:   

  • In 2001, the operator of Inwood Dairy in Peoria County was caught dumping 2 million gallons of liquid cow manure into a ravine flowing into West Fork Kickapoo Creek, causing a large fish kill and visibly contaminating the creek with foam from the manure.   
  • In 2009, a swine farm operator in Morgan County told Illinois EPA inspectors that he dumped 27,000 pounds of solid manure into a ravine flowing into a nearby pond, causing what the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR) called a “total loss” of aquatic life.  
  • In 2004, Illinois EPA inspectors discovered manure from a swine farm in McDonough County flowing into a waterway leading to Troublesome Creek, filling it with foul-smelling brown sludge about 10 inches deep. Subsequent data showed substantial portions of Troublesome Creek to be too polluted to support fish or other aquatic life. 
  • In less than three years, two factory farms spilled manure into Panther Creek in Woodford County. According to Illinois EPA and DNR reports, these spills choked Panther Creek’s tributaries with swine waste foam several feet thick, discolored the water in the creek, and killed about 30,000 fish, insects and other wildlife. 
  • From 2009 to 2011, Fragrant 40 swine farm in Macoupin County was accused of spilling manure multiple times into Taylor Creek. As of 2011, 24 miles of Taylor Creek were too polluted to support fish or other aquatic life.

Policy Recommendations

To protect our waterways from factory farm pollution, Illinois should take the following strong actions:

  • Place a moratorium on new or expanded factory farms — Factory farms produce unsustainable volumes of waste that threaten Illinois’ waterways. The state should ban the construction of new factory farms and prohibit expansion of existing factory farms. 
  • Require all factory farms to obtain water pollution permits — Illinois should require any factory farm with the potential to discharge waste into state waterways to obtain a permit requiring it to submit enforceable waste management plans for approval, to report annually on waste management practices, and to be routinely inspected.
  • Place restrictions on manure land-application and storage to protect water quality — The state should prohibit land-applying waste in wintertime, when frozen soil cannot absorb manure, and in any areas where animal waste can easily migrate to groundwater. The state should also increase the minimum setback between land-application areas and surface waters, and require minimum setbacks between manure storage units and surface waters.  
  • Ensure effective enforcement — The state should ensure that the Illinois EPA has adequate resources to routinely inspect factory farms. The Illinois EPA must also refer more cases to the Attorney General’s office for formal enforcement—including all cases involving persistent or severe non-compliance and any violations involving an actual discharge of waste to Illinois waters.  
  • Create a comprehensive inventory of factory farms — As a minimum first step to curbing pollution from factory farms, Illinois should require all CAFOs to register their location and size with the state so the public can understand the scale and scope of the threat factory farms pose to Illinois’ waterways.

In addition, federal officials must immediately restore the protections of the Clean Water Act to all of Illinois’ waterways—including the small rivers, streams and wetlands that currently lack protection. Ensuring federal jurisdiction over all of Illinois’ waters will allow Illinois residents to appeal to federal regulators when state efforts to rein in CAFO pollution fail. 


Jordan Schneider

Policy Analyst

John Rumpler

Clean Water Director and Senior Attorney, Environment America

John directs Environment America's efforts to protect our rivers, lakes, streams and drinking water. John’s areas of expertise include lead and other toxic threats to drinking water, factory farms and agribusiness pollution, algal blooms, fracking and the federal Clean Water Act. He previously worked as a staff attorney for Alternatives for Community & Environment and Tobacco Control Resource Center. John lives in Brookline, Mass., with his family, where he enjoys cooking, running, playing tennis, chess and building sandcastles on the beach.