Water contamination from horse manure is no joke in state

Horse poop. It might sound like the punchline to a giggling-kid joke.

In Connecticut it’s no joke.

With 45,000 to 60,000 horses–the most of any New England state–producing 50 pounds of manure each a day,  that’s about eight tons a year per horse. And with Long Island Sound pretty much the catchall for anything that gets into the ground, it’s definitely no joke.

“A lot of people don’t really think about what to do until it becomes a problem,” said Jenifer Nadeau, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut and an equine extension specialist. “So they just pile it up.”

That’s exactly the kind of practice that makes folks who worry about water quality cringe. If not handled properly, those piles can easily wash their damaging nitrogen and other contaminants into the ground or nearest water body. And eventually they will wind up in the Sound.

Which was why an outreach and remediation effort aimed at doing something about horse manure disposal in Connecticut was among 39 recipients of grants awarded recently in Connecticut and New York through the Long Island Sound Futures Fund.

Snicker if you want, but the horse poop project (officially: Improving Equine Operation Nutrient Management), with a $150,000 two-year award, was the top recipient among the 21 grants in Connecticut; only one of the New York grants was for the same amount. The funds–$75,000 from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and $75,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, to be matched by another $75,000 for a total of $225,000–will be used to figure out the scope of the problem and then begin to fix it. The project coordinators will be the NRCS’s Connecticut office and the three of the state’s five Conservation Districts that border the Sound.

The districts, unknown to many people, got their start through the federal government in the dustbowl era to help with soil conservation. Now some 3,000 districts nationwide operate as quasi-governmental non-profits assisting states with all forms of soil and water conservation. In Connecticut, they receive some state funding, which was halved, however, in this year’s budget, from $800,000 to $400,000.

Concern over water contamination from improper manure disposal, as well as issues of other horse waste such as bedding and urine, have been discussed for years among the members of the conservation partnership–the NRCS, the Conservation Districts and the state’s Council on Soil and Water Conservation. Connecticut ranks among the top three states for density of the horse population per square mile. But with horse ownership here averaging two per owner, according to data compiled by UConn in 2003, most owners are unknown to state authorities and in any case are not subject to any sort of inspection.

“The problem is there is no real inventory; no tracking of these things,” said Scott Gravatt, executive director of the Eastern Connecticut Conservation District which includes about three-dozen communities. “People just have horses.”

Amy Stegall, president of the Connecticut Horse Council said it was her sense that most horse owners were good about controlling manure disposal, but those in the conservation districts, NRCS and elsewhere disagreed.

“Some are doing it right,” said Roman Mrozinski, executive director of the Southwest Connecticut Conservation District, which covers 43 communities including all of Fairfield County, second only to Litchfield County in horse ownership, and New Haven County. “Some are doing it vastly wrong.”

The wrong way is piling manure on the ground to decompose, even temporarily if it’s picked up by landscapers who may use it for compost. Worse yet is doing the same near water or with runoff angled towards water.

“Everything runs downhill,” said Mrozinski, who along with others recommended placing manure on concrete pads, hard surfaces or even in metal trash cans that won’t leach; keeping it relatively dry – it needs water for composting, but not very much; covering it for faster decomposition; creating vegetative buffers to keep manure away from water; eliminating standing water that aside from manure issues can be breeding grounds for the mosquitoes that cause deadly eastern equine encephalitis; and installing gutters on barn roofs to direct runoff away from horse waste.

“There are a multitude of easy implementable things that can be done that have a high return on addressing issues of pollution,” he said.

Just ask Dana Ramsey Maxwell, who with her husband own 1738 Farm in Deep River where they have one horse, board a second and the space for a third. She remembered horse farms when she was younger. “It would rain and you’d see this disgusting brown water running downhill,” she said. “I thought, ‘that’s gross,’ but I didn’t realize how much it screws up the ecosystems.”

The Maxwells installed what they call a manure cabana – a covered 3-bay bin with a separate area for turning manure, which they monitor carefully to make sure it “cooks” at a high enough temperature to destroy pathogens. They also capture rainwater, which they purify for the horses to drink using a solar-run pump and filter system.

“At first our motives were very selfish,” she said. “We wanted very little or no flies. We wanted to be able to use our compost and we wanted to protect our own water and the environment around us.

“The more we researched, the more we realized how damaging manure is to the environment.”

To help educate horse owners about what they can do to manage manure, a best practices manual called Good Horse Keeping was recently prepared for the Horse Environmental Awareness Program, which has existed for a number of years through the King’s Mark Resource Conservation and Development Council which handles the western half of Connecticut. RC&Ds operate through the USDA nationwide.

“Our target are the people who have four or five acres of land and have a couple of horses and don’t really know they shouldn’t be putting the manure over the bank next to the stream,” said James Sipperly, King’s Mark’s president.

“We’re not here to enforce and fine anybody. We’re here to promote basic best management practices for people who are new or who don’t know how they should be managing things.”

The initial plan for the project is workshops and outreach through various state and federal offices to let horse owners know that information is available. Mrozinski said he’s heard from about 60 already as word of the grant and project has spread.

People from the conservation districts and the NRCS will be available to survey property and prepare free conservation plans. “To get to what the needs are, somebody really needs to look at the situation and look at the area and talk to landowner,” said Kipen Kolesinskas, a state soil scientist with the NRCS. “In some case the best solution might be you shouldn’t have horse here.”

A big part of the equation, not surprisingly, is money, and the project will help horse owners connect with funding for bigger ticket remediation. Those considered agricultural producers may qualify for EQIP, the federal Environmental Quality Incentives Program. It pays for up to 75 percent of work done to specific standards and passing inspection after completion.

But for most horse hobbyists here, EQIP will not be available, so some of the grant money will be used to help owners pay for manure management work. Despite stereotypes to the contrary in a wealthy state like Connecticut, according to the UConn survey, horse owners here tend not to be well-off.

“They were barely making it before the economy dropped,” said Nadeau. Now she said, she gels emails daily from people looking to get rid of horses. And that just compounds the waste problem.

“The manure pile is building up and now they don’t know what to do. And until now, there was no money to help.

“Hopefully this will help them.”