Milking Washington’s small dairy farms…to death

Milking Washington’s small dairy farms…to death
Washington farming organizations are appealing a new requirement under a State Department of Ecology permit intended to protect groundwater supply from cow manure stored in lagoons. Environmentalists have also appealed, saying the rules don’t go far enough. Photo: Save Family Farming

Two feet doesn’t seem that far. Yet, industry members warn it’s a distance enough to threaten the survival of many Western Washington dairy farms if they’re forced to comply with a new state Department of Ecology permit requirement concerning lagoons used to store cow manure. Two Washington farm organizations have appealed the permit conditions to the State Pollution Control Hearings Board to have that and other sections of the rule revised, claiming it is too stringent and beyond federal standards.

Incidentally, they are joined in their opposition by the environmentalist group Puget Soundkeepers Alliance, which is making a completely different argument: the new rules are too lax.

“What we’re looking for in a permit is something that will show the protection for ground and surface water, but is affordable and actually makes good sense,” Washington State Dairy Federation (WSDF) Executive Director Dan Wood said. The WSDF filed the appeal last year, along with the Washington Farm Bureau.

Although the appeal raises several concerns, the chief criticism of the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation General Permit (NPDES and State Waste Discharge General Permit) approved by  Ecology last year is the new requirement concerning manure lagoons; the contents are later collected and used as fertilizer.

Also known as CAFO, the new permit version stipulates that there be two vertical feet of distance between the lagoon liner and the groundwater. The intent is to protect surface and groundwater from bacteria, nitrates and pathogens for the 60 percent of Washingtonians who get their drinking water from groundwater. Prior to the 2017 changes, there was no distance requirement.

However, Wood contends that this new rule goes beyond the standards of the federal permit through the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which still has no distance requirement.

Ecology’s economic impact statement estimates the average five-year cost for compliance with the rule to be around $338,000, though it notes the financial costs would be borne disproportionately by smaller businesses. The agency estimated the a typical CAFO averages around eight employees. To offset the financial burden, Ecology offers, under certain conditions, permit exemptions for farms with a lower threshold of animals.

However, Wood puts the average estimated cost for lagoon work at $500,000, a bill many small farms can’t afford right now.

“A lot of them are (already) running in the negative right now with the price of milk being down,” he said.

It’s not so much of a problem for most farmers in Eastern Washington, where the lagoons can be hundreds of feet from groundwater. The regulatory challenge primarily affects Western Washington farmers.

“If they have to get this permit and meet that changed standard, then a lot of them could just go out of business,” he added. “With Ecology’s change in where you’re measuring, it (a lagoon) could be out of compliance, even though it’s meeting federal standards and functioning properly.”

Already, the extended period of low milk prices has in part contributed to the loss of 85 percent of Washington dairy farms in the past 25 years – from 2,500 in 1993 to 377 in 2018. But government regulations have also played a role, Wood argues. “We’ve got a pretty extensive regulatory oversight in Washington state compared to other states.”

That includes the state Dairy Nutrient Management Act, which took effect in 1998. A 2016 report by the Washington State Department of Agriculture found Washington farmers had a 96 percent compliance rate.

Ecology permit writer Jon Jennings told Lens that the revised CAFO doesn’t “require that somebody go out immediately and change their lagoon in response to that (new requirement). There is a process…somebody would have to go through before they would be required to do so.”

He argues that the two-foot distance has been an agency policy elsewhere for a number of years based on previous studies, but was not included in the permit’s 2006 version.

However, Wood contends the two-foot rule was included in the permit’s final version without public input.

Meanwhile, the Puget SoundKeeper Alliance wants the permit requirements to include more provisions, such as mandatory groundwater monitoring. The organization claims that with the new permit Ecology will allow leaky lagoons to emit manure into the water, though WSDF says the alliance conflates “seepage” with “leakage.”

Jennings says that as a general permit, CAFO covers a group instead of just one farm. Because of that, the permit conditions are intended to be “protective for the entire industry. There are potentially situations where a facility may need to do more or less, but part of this particular permit cycle is information gathering. Until we know the state of lagoons in general for this industry type, it’s very hard for Ecology to make a blanket statement that something is or isn’t good enough.”

At the same time, Wood said there are other provisions farmers want changed, including the requirement to conduct fall soil sampling no later than October 1. For many farms, harvests don’t begin until well after that date, and in Eastern Washington some farms see two harvests in a single year.

“We’re just trying to get some things fix so they’re based on sound science and a good understanding of agriculture,” Wood said.

No specific date has been set for when the hearings board will render a decision.

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