Dairy water rules on North Coast provide options

Issue Date: January 25, 2012
By Ching Lee

Following what participants called a collaborative effort between government regulators and dairy farmers, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board unanimously approved a new program last week for how dairy farmers deal with waste discharges from their livestock.

The board approved a three-tier permitting program to address water quality from the region's approximately 150 dairies and 50,000 cows. Those dairies are located mainly in western Humboldt and Sonoma counties, and also in Siskiyou, Del Norte, Mendocino and Marin counties.

Adoption of the rules comes after months of discussion and input from stakeholders that began in early 2010 through meetings with agency representatives and interested parties. In developing the regulations, regional water board staff inspected a number of the region's dairies, a process that Humboldt County dairy farmer David Renner said allowed regulators "to get a handle on what the operations are like."

Having volunteered for the inspections, Renner said he appreciated the opportunity to foster a spirit of cooperation with the board staff.

"At that time they were still looking to come up with a set of rules, and they knew that if they were too strict—particularly in our area, because we're kind of unique—that they could force us all out of business," he said. "That wasn't their intent, but we still have to protect the water."

Katherine Ziemer, executive director of the Humboldt County Farm Bureau, said she thinks the regional board realized that it would get "more results for a lot cheaper price when they have willing partners."

"I think they saw the opportunity to give producers something positive to comply with," she said. "I think they decided the carrot was more beneficial than the stick."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2003 began requiring states to regulate concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. California delegated the permitting to its nine regional water quality control boards. The North Coast was among the last of the regions to adopt regulations.

The regulatory program allows North Coast dairy farmers to choose one of three permits that best suits their dairies' conditions. The regional board will then verify through inspections that it's the correct choice. Producers have until April 30 to file a Notice of Intent.

Paul Martin, director of environmental services for Western United Dairymen, said most dairies in the region will be able to enroll under a conditional waiver of waste discharge requirements, which applies to operations that pose a low or insignificant risk.

Dairies with 700 or more mature cows that apply manure and/or dairy process water to their fields must develop and implement a nutrient management plan if they want coverage under the conditional waiver.

Operations that do not discharge but potentially pose a "significant threat" to water quality may seek coverage under the general waste discharge requirements permit, which requires dairies to have a waste management plan and a nutrient management plan, as well as regular sampling of surface water runoff and groundwater wells.

The third option is the national pollutant discharge elimination system and a waste discharge requirements permit for CAFOs. This permit covers dairies that discharge waste to surface or groundwater and requires a nutrient management plan and water quality sampling of discharges.

All three permits require a written plan for controlling waste; regular inspection of water quality protection structures and other best management practices; monitoring of surface water and groundwater; annual reports prior to the rainy season; and access to the operation by the regional board to conduct inspections, review plans, take photos and collect water quality samples.

"We suspect most (North Coast dairies) will go for the waiver," Martin said. "But there's probably going to be some facilities that need a substantial amount of investment before they're going to be able to comply."

He noted that unlike the larger operations in the Central Valley, most dairies on the North Coast have fewer than 700 cows, with 350 cows being the average, and are grazing operations. Also, Sonoma County for years has had its own self-monitoring program that tests water samples from multiple watersheds after rainstorms.

Renner said he was initially concerned the regional board would implement rules similar to those for Central Valley dairies, which are more costly and paperwork-intensive. Such a move would have financially devastated the region's dairies, he said.

"For most of us, we'd have to shut the place down. There's no possible way we could comply with it," he said.

He added that even though producers now have another permit that they must deal with, at least the rules the regional board adopted "are workable" and "we now know what we have to do." He noted how he had been making upgrades to his facility relating to water quality improvements but had to stop the work due to uncertainty of the regulations.

Martin said the current program is less focused on process and paperwork so that producers can direct their energy toward protecting water quality. It is also important that the program has support from farmers, dairy organizations, resource conservation districts, the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service and the University of California Cooperative Extension, he said.

Ria de Grassi, director of livestock for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said there is also a joint commitment among regulators and dairy organizations to do outreach to help farmers achieve compliance.

"When you work with people and listen to them, you actually are more likely to get a better product," she said.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.