IF cows could talk, they probably wouldn't have much good to say about summertime. The heat is oppressive, the flies are relentless, and most cows can't get into a backyard hammock without considerable help from a forklift.
But here in rural Alamance County, summer has always been bearable for bovines. On August afternoons, as many as 50 cows can be seen standing belly-deep in nearby Cammack Lake, lolling in the cool water and mooing at motorboats.
For years, the only thing they were ever accused of is spooking the fish, but now there's a problem.
Since polluted water was implicated after thousands of people in Milwaukee became ill two years ago, city managers in other towns, such as Burlington, N.C., have taken steps to safeguard their water supply.
And that means changes at Cammack Lake - one of Burlington's reservoirs. Animal waste is a suspect in water-related health problems, so city planners decided last week to call off the pastoral pool party.
''We're just worried about the safety of the water,'' says Cammack Lake Warden Landy Patton, who is charged with enforcing the ban. ''It's just a precautionary measure.''
Last week, five farmers who own property on the lake received letters notifying them that they must keep their bathing bovines at least 50 feet from the water's edge. Soon, the Burlington City Council is expected to order the farmers to install fences to keep their livestock from diving in at a lawless moment.
''It's been an ongoing thing ever since the lake was built,'' says Randall Kornegay, Burlington's director of public works. ''We'll let them get away with it for a while, and then we'll say something to them. It's never really been resolved.''
Predictably, the farmers are furious.
Conversations here, which normally include some mention of the 20-pound carp Travis Allison pulled out of the lake last month, turn instead to the story of the city and the cows. Last week, a photograph of Mack Garrison's beef cattle skinning-dipping in the lake made the front page of Burlington's newspaper.
Sitting in lawn chairs at Mr. Garrison's 320-acre farm, several local farmers, joined by a handful of curious blue-tick hounds, described the impact the decision would have on their cattle operations.
Beef prices are already low this year, down to about 42 cents a pound, which, they say, is hardly enough for anyone to make a living on.
If the cows can't cool off, these farmers say, they tend to lie in the shade all day instead of grazing - a condition that keeps them thin and can lead to sickness.
One of the five farmers, Earl Sartin, points out in the Alamance County News last week that in fact, the cows came before the lake. And back in 1961 when the city built the lake, it condemned 760 acres worth of farmland, brought in bulldozers, and dug the 3.2 billion-gallon reservoir.
At the time, Mr. Sartin says, his property already had fences around it, which the city tore down. He estimates that it would cost $6,000 to put up a new fence - a sum he says he will never pay. ''If it comes down to it,'' he says, ''I'll sell my cows.''
While the farmers say they understand the importance of clean drinking water, they say there is no evidence of pollution in the water, the city hasn't developed a reliable test, and that before the water gets to the pumping station, it has to go over a dam which acts as a natural purifying process.
Besides, they say, with all the boats leaking oil, the deer tracking through, and all the hot sweaty humans diving in, the cows are not the only problem.
''This is not really about keeping the cows cool,'' says one farmer who, like most, declined to be named. ''It's about the cost of putting up and maintaining a fence. That's money we don't have - especially this year.''