April Showers 2
Wednesday, April 19, 2017
APRIL SHOWERS 2: More rain is on the horizon, but with rising temperatures and buds in bloom, spring has clearly arrived. We described last week the conditions months of elevated rainfall has created on the region’s steep slopes and high country, but what of the lowlands?
“The exceptional rain and snow this year in Whatcom County is causing a serious manure storage problem,” Whatcom Family Farmers, an advocacy group for local ag businesses, reported last week. “Heavy rains last October and well into spring means that storage lagoons are full to capacity, putting farmers in a no-win situation.
“Manure lagoons are an essential part of contemporary dairy farming because they allow the manure their dairy cows produce to be applied safely,” the group explained in a press release. “Whatcom dairy farmers first started installing lagoons in the 1970s, before even the effects of too much nitrogen on crops or bacteria runoff into streams was really understood. Saturated fields or application during rains can make it easy for fecal coliform to runoff into ditches and streams that flow into the Nooksack River. Now we also know that when nitrogen from commercial fertilizer or organic fertilizer—manure—is applied beyond what the crops can take up, it can accumulate in the soil and then leak into groundwater through heavy rains or irrigation. This extra nitrogen, combined with nitrogen naturally in the soil or from other sources such as septic systems, converts to nitrate. The EPA limits nitrate in drinking water to 10 parts per million for public health reasons,” the group reported. “As long as it remains the federal standard, it is very important to farmers to apply their nutrients at what’s called an agronomic rate—that is a rate that does not exceed what the plants can absorb.”
Lots of waste. Few options to store it, or reduce it.
The problems of overfilled or breached lagoons are complicated, but related to a common cause—large-scale concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. CAFOs in turn are a consequence of venerable grain feedstock and dairy subsidy, which delivers a price break and therefore cost-efficiency to concentrations of larger herds. Their waste product is on the scale of an industrial hazard.
CAFOs generate more than 26 million of pounds of manure each day in Washington state. The manure, which contains nitrates, fecal coliform bacteria and other pollutants, is often over-applied, untreated, directly to farmland, or is stored in unlined manure lagoons that are known to leak. The over-application of manure has been linked to contamination of drinking water due to high levels of nitrates. In Washington state, more than three-quarters of pollution cleanup funds between 2005 and 2013 were used to clean up waters contaminated by agriculture.
“Overapplication of manure and leaking lagoons can release pollution into surface water and groundwater, causing serious public health issues and threatening industries dependent on clean water, like shellfish farmers,” RE Sources explained. RE Sources and other public advocacy groups filed an appeal in February with the Washington state Pollution Control Hearings Board (PCHB) challenging the Department of Ecology’s waste discharge permits for CAFOs. Ecology’s proposed changes are insufficient to address the scope of the problem, the challenge maintains.
Ecology’s revised permits—a state-only permit for CAFOs that discharge to groundwater, and a combined state/federal permit for CAFOs that discharge to surface water—were issued a full five years after the former permit expired. Yet the new permit released late last year is insufficient, according to environmental advocacy groups, although it does expand coverage from a few dairies to approximately 200 facilities.
According to the appealing groups, Ecology’s new permits fail to prevent the four major sources of pollution from CAFOs: land application, manure lagoons, compost areas and animal pens. The permits authorize CAFOs to discharge into groundwater, which threatens the drinking water that many communities depend on. The permits also failed to address the thousands of public comments Ecology received asking for permits that prioritize human health and clean water.
“The appeal alleges the permits fail to include basic water quality monitoring requirements and fail to require best-available technology for CAFOs such as synthetic manure lagoon liners, which prevent pollution from manure leaking into groundwater,” RE Sources explained. “The appeal also alleges the permits lack necessary standards to ensure compliance with state and federal water quality laws: the state-only permit authorizes groundwater discharges and removes the power granted to citizens under federal law to defend their clean water rights if dangerous pollution from CAFOs threatens water quality.”
“There is no easy, short-term solution to this situation,” Whatcom Family Farms admitted in a press release. “Longer term, the answer is to increase the amount of storage space so that the variations in weather can be accommodated. But for dairy farmers deep into a multi-year market recession with no end in sight, investing in a hugely expensive new lagoon is simply not feasible. Add to that the attacks from anti-farm activists—including some in our own community—who pressure regulators to require synthetic lagoon liners,” they note. “Large dairy farmers in Eastern Washington have been forced through litigation and threats of federal action into installing these extremely expensive liners. They report costs that would bankrupt the majority of dairy farmers. Facing increasing uncertainty from new regulations such as the recently published Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation permit from the Department of Ecology and the continuing threats of lawsuits from Oregon attorneys, farmers are understandably hesitant to make major investments.”
Advocacy groups would doubt that the long-term solution involves increasing the capacity of a problem that is itself a direct consequence of over-capacity, of an agribusiness subsidy that favors industrial-scale dairies. The dairy industry is fraught with unintended consequences of oversupply, which has flatlined milk prices for a decade and challenged the ability of farmers to finance new infrastructure.
“We want farmers to be successful, and we fully realize the value farming brings to our communities, families and local economies,” RE Sources noted. “We acknowledge the challenges farmers face to stay in business, and we’re grateful for the steps several exemplary dairy farmers in Whatcom County have taken to make reparations through the Portage Bay Partnership. We are not in a battle against farmers. We simply want the pollution from livestock operations to be contained, treated appropriately and eliminated as a threat to clean water.”