State Ecology completes its long process of revamping manure rules

WHATCOM — The new CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) waste discharge permit, long in development with the state Department of Ecology, was issued in final form in mid-January and will become effective March 3.

Exactly what it means at the local dairy farm level now remains to be seen.

It’s an issue that traces back to 2014 and provoked an outpouring of comment both at public meetings and online, often strongly contrasting farmer views against a strong environmentalist lobby.

Farmers from Whatcom County and statewide spoke with an unusual passion that their very survival in dairying long-term could be at stake over the CAFO requirements.

Gerald Baron, spokesman for the Whatcom Family Farmers group, says that mood is still present.

“While there is some positive response to Ecology’s decision to offer a state permit with some protection against lawsuits such as were seen in Yakima, there is frustration that this protection could have come without the unnecessary added burdens,” he said in an email.

“We know some farmers have said it’s all too much and indicated a desire to call it quits. Our state administration needs to understand the difficulty today’s dairy farmer faces and look at easing the burdens that are added onto those already in place.”

On Jan. 18 Ecology put out notice of the updated water quality permit and also posted 177 pages of response to comments made on the draft versions of the permit. One hearing was in Bellingham July 26, 2016; dozens of people spoke.

The permit requires large-scale livestock operations in Washington to implement specific practices to better protect groundwater, rivers, lakes and marine waters from manure pollution. The new permit expands coverage from a few dairies before — under mostly a violation-driven system — to approximately 200 facilities.

“We have developed a more protective permit that gives livestock operators clear direction on how to meet environmental requirements to protect surface and groundwater,” said Heather Bartlett, manager of Ecology’s Water Quality Program.

The Washington State Department of Agriculture will continue as the principal inspector of dairies while partnerimg with the Department of Ecology to implement the water quality permit.

A key element is that the permit applies only to larger operations, such as dairies with 200 or more cows. In Whatcom County, that is estimated to be about 70 dairy farms.

Another key distinction relates to whether manure is discharged to groundwater only or to surface water as well. For groundwater only, a general permit under the state Water Pollution Control Act is sufficient. For release to surface waters, a national NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) permit is also needed and the authority of the federal Clean Water Act comes into play. Facilities that have both types of discharges will need the combined state/federal permit.

Baron said the combined permit does mandate 100-foot manure application buffers to surface water, but the state Dairy Nutrient Management Act is also very specific in allowing absolutely no discharges to surface water. “Surface water discharge means any amount of manure, no matter how small, must be prevented and failure to do so can result in citations and fines,” he said. “So again farmers are hit with redundant regulations.”

The 19-year-old Dairy Nutrient Management Act is already one of the most stringent of its kind in the nation, and it has dramatically reduced water contamination from dairy farms, which makes farmers feel the new CAFO rules are “a solution in search of a problem,” Baron said.

These are other specifics of the permit:

• It includes new requirements about how and when manure can be spread onto crops and soils to prevent manure runoff and seepage into groundwater.

• If soil tests show high nitrate levels, the operator must stop or limit manure spreading, or monitor the groundwater.

• The permit requires manure lagoons to be assessed to provide construction, maintenance, size and site details to help determine the pollution risk posed.

Yakima and Whatcom counties, with the highest numbers of cows and dairies in the state, have historically had elevated levels of nitrates in groundwater. That means these areas are particularly vulnerable if manure is not well managed, Ecology says.

To that, Baron replies that nitrates in groundwater reflect the history of farming practice and not necessary what is going on now.

Ecology reports that in the Lower Yakima Valley, a Groundwater Management Area has been established and Yakima County is leading a multi-jurisdictional group to reduce sources of nitrate pollution so that groundwater meets state drinking water standards.

Health officials advise that people drinking from a private well should get the water tested at least once a year. Find out more on the state Department of Health website.

As to impacts on manure application in general, Baron said Whatcom Family Farmers believes most are doing an excellent job of this already, so the permit may not change substantially how things are done. Additional soil testing and additional reporting requirements, while adding costs, “are not likely to have any real benefit for the environment,” he said.

Ecology says it will hold informational workshops about the new permit in coming months. But no exact dates and places have been set.

The Timeline

These are details of both the groundwater-only state permit and the combined state-federal permit:

• An initial Manure Pollution Prevention Plan must be submitted within six months, or by Sept. 4, 2017.

• Assessment of an existing lagoon is required within two years, or March 2019.

• An annual report of all fields’ nutrient budgets must be filed to Ecology by each Dec. 31.

• The permittee must reapply for permit coverage on or before Sept. 4, 2021, 180 days before the expiration of this permit, if intending to continue operations and discharges.