Western Environmental Law Center falsely accuses dairy farmers of water pollution and shellfish bed closures
The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC), an Oregon-based environmental non-profit, is promoting legal action and massive new regulations aimed at dairy farmers. Their widely promoted claims of pollution from dairy farms consist of old data and misstatements of facts. If they are successful in driving Whatcom County’s family dairy farms out of business, they will have done nothing to improve the environment, but instead will be the cause of the worst environmental disaster to face our community -- the conversion of our farmland into suburbia.
They claim dairy farms are CAFOs, or confined animal feeding operations.
Fact: Critics of dairy farms, such as the WELC, like to refer to them as CAFOs, or Confined Animal Feeding Operations. This is an intentional effort to link dairy farms with the negative perception of large beef cattle feeding lots, taking advantage of the fact that few understand the technical definition. In order to be a CAFO one must first meet the standard of an AFO, or animal feeding operation. Those conditions are as follows:
- Animals have been, are, or will be stabled or confined and fed or maintained for a total of 45 days or more in any 12-month period, and
- Crops, vegetation, forage growth, or post-harvest residues are not sustained in the normal growing season over any portion of the lot or facility.
They claim unlined storage lagoons leak at least 1000 gallons per day per acre.
Fact: Dairy lagoons are typically lined and the manure curing in the lagoon adds to the impermeability by a factor of ten according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) of the US Department of Agriculture. All dairy farms in Whatcom County are required under the 1998 Nutrient Management Act to have a nutrient management plan and almost all their storage lagoons were certified to meet NRCS standards by NRCS engineers.
The NRCS also points out that all containment systems leak to some degree, including those using plastic liners. Lagoons built to NRCS specifications are certified because of the effectiveness of their containment. Data compiled by the University of California, Davis in a large study of nitrates makes clear that of all the nitrogen produced by cows in the form of manure, only 1% of it is leaked through manure lagoons. This amount of leakage is much less than residential septic systems. More information on this will be provided below.
They claim unlined lagoons near Puget Sound contribute to fecal coliform, nitrates and other water pollution.
Facts: As previously pointed out, most lagoons are lined. So let’s look at fecal coliform contamination. WELC’s accusation is based on outdated information and is in direct contradiction to information provided by the State of Washington regarding fecal coliform contamination. The chart from the Washington State Department of Health in their 2012 study titled Status and Trends in Fecal Coliform Pollution in Shellfish Growing Areas of Puget Sound: Year 2011 June 2012 shows bodies of water near Puget Sound that have been affected by fecal coliform so that shellfish beds are impacted. The shellfish beds with by far the highest fecal coliform counts are nowhere near major dairy areas.
So, why are these areas, including Portage Bay, affected by fecal coliform? According to the State report the primary focus is suburbanization, or development of traditional rural areas particularly those nearest marine waters: “In the early 1980s, nonpoint fecal pollution became the key factor in closure of shellfish beds. Intensive development of rural watersheds and the marine shoreline of Puget Sound have increased the risk of contamination of shellfish resources.”
This becomes even more clear with recent studies by the Whatcom Conservation District on leakage from manure lagoons and their contribution to nitrate contamination.
For perspective, Whatcom Conservation District (WCD) staff compared the USDA accepted calculated leakage rate for a typical dairy farm’s manure lagoon to an equal volume of five residential septic systems. WCD concluded that nitrate discharge from five residential septic systems is potentially ten times greater than the amount of nitrate seepage from one acre-sized manure lagoon. Although dairy manure lagoons may contribute low levels of nitrate, septic systems have an equal or greater potential to pollute groundwater when not designed and maintained properly.
Whatcom Conservation District’s George Boggs, an attorney and agronomist, stated the situation clearly:
“Conclusions that dairy lagoons are major contributors of nitrate contamination to Whatcom County aquifers are misguided. ...It is unfortunate that people don't critically read the scientific articles relating to how manure lagoons perform. The calculated rate of ‘leakage’ overstates the actual contributions of nitrate to groundwater. To say that lagoon leakage is the major source for nitrate levels exceeding MCL 10 (Maximum Contaminant Level @ 10 milligrams per liter) in Whatcom County aquifers is untenable or indefensible.”
They claim nitrates are toxins and high doses cause blue baby syndrome.
FACT: Nitrates in high doses may indeed be dangerous and Whatcom County’s family farmers are concerned about the high levels of nitrates in some areas of the county. However, science on human health risk is very much in dispute as a paper from the National Institute of Health website makes clear. The scientific consensus appears to be the basis for establishing the Maximum Contamination Level, specifically five cases of blue baby syndrome in the late 1940s, is faulty. Scientists studying the illnesses at that time concluded that the high nitrates in a well contaminated with bacteria was to blame, when the more recent studies indicate that blue baby syndrome is caused by bacteria generating nitric oxide in the infants. Furthermore, nitrates in fruits and vegetables are almost universally seen as important for good health and vegetables high in nitrates are a key element of the DASH diet to combat hypertension. For more information about the confusion around nitrates see the fact sheet on the whatcomfamilydairies.com website.
Even if it is established that nitrates in county water are a health risk, it is completely inappropriate to place the blame on today’s dairy farms. Nitrate levels have been high for at least 40 years. The EPA makes it clear that nitrates come from multiple sources including from organic material occurring naturally in the soil. Given recent data about the contribution from septic systems (five septic systems can contribute up to ten times more nitrates than a one-acre manure lagoon), more focus needs to be on the rapid suburbanization occurring in Whatcom County and across the border. Ferndale and Lynden are growing at a rate seven times that of Bellingham, with much of that growth in farmland where septic systems are needed. Our aquifer is shared with the Lower Mainland of BC, in fact 53% of our aquifer is in Canada. The land nearest Lynden and Sumas across the border is intensively farmed and Environment Canada has found high levels of nitrates in that farmland where regulation is considerably more lax than in Washington State. If suburbanization is the cause of water quality problems, the fact that our closest neighbors from Langley to Abbotsford will have a population of 1.25 million by 2031 should be of concern.
They claim the State Department of Health has confirmed manure from dairy CAFOs is responsible for the shellfish bed closures.
FACT: Portage Bay, where the Lummi shellfish beds are located, was closed in the mid-1990s and state officials did conclude that dairies were likely a major contributor to the fecal coliform that required their closure. But then came the 1998 Dairy Nutrient Management Act, regulations that dramatically changed how dairy farmers managed their nutrients or manure. All dairies are required to have a nutrient management plan that specifies zero discharge. Accidental or careless application or system failures can and have resulted in significant fines. But more than that, many local dairies have invested far beyond the regulations including installing bio-gas digesters and many other proactive measures. Water quality testing in the years following the implementation of this important regulation document a 63% decrease in fecal coliform in the Nooksack river and 40% to 80% in tributary streams.
The recent shellfish bed closure is of great concern to dairy farmers given the $30 million investment they made to greatly reduce their contribution to this pollution problem. So, if not from farmers, then where is the fecal coliform coming from?
Contrary to what WELC claims, the State Department of Health has made it clear that suburbanization of rural land near marine water is the primary cause of fecal coliform contamination in our shellfish growing areas. We saw this earlier in the chart of compromised shellfish areas where very few were located near dairy farms.
The growing role of cities, towns and urban sprawl in fecal coliform contamination was also made clear in a report on water testing by Whatcom County Public Works. The report of the Portage Bay Shellfish Protection District Bacteria Monitoring Study of December 2009 shows that the areas of greatest concern were the basins closest to the City of Lynden, particularly related to storm events with stormwater runoff. There are several monitoring stations on the Fishtrap Creek, but the stations F1, F4, F4a and F4b are located within the City or directly downstream from the City. The report stated:
“When bacteria load was calculated the basins exhibiting the highest mass export of bacteria were F4b, F4, F4a and F1. Therefore, future source elimination efforts should focus on these basins...this provides further evidence that the Fishtrap watershed is a significant source of bacterial contamination for Portage Bay...it is recommended that future source control efforts focus on the urban areas that are associated with the city of Lynden” (p.47)
While the State of Washington and Whatcom County appropriately identify bacterial contamination with urban growth, WELC seeks to place the blame on dairy farmers in their attempt to drive dairies out of business.
They claim over-application of manure to fields is common practice and contributes 66% of the nitrogen inputs to the Sumas-Blaine aquifer and 58% of nitrate contamination in the Lower Yakima Valley.
FACT: We can’t speak for Canada as we know that berry growers there in the past used a lot of manure on their crops coming from the large poultry farms across the border. We also know there are calls for regulation of the dairy farms across the border to accomplish what Washington State farmers have accomplished in reducing pollution. The fecal coliform counts flowing from Canada into the US water was so high in the summer of 2014 that a boil water notice was issued for the area immediately north of Lynden. Whatcom family dairy farmers typically operate in compliance with their nutrient management plan and state regulations including in the application of nutrients to crops. Several farmers have indeed been fined for accidental discharges, but as the State Department of Agriculture has pointed out, the compliance among farmers is very strong.
The blame that WELC attempts to heap on dairy farms for an aquifer that is 53% in Canada, as well as tying local dairies to Yakima, demonstrates their misguided efforts to focus on dairy farmers. Whatcom County is blessed with a massive underground aquifer plus abundant rainfall (usually) that fully recharges the aquifer. It’s completely inappropriate to compare Whatcom County’s water situation with Yakima. If they were sincere about protecting water quality and our environment, they would look to the numerous other sources of pollution rather than focusing on Whatcom County’s family dairies.
They claim 1% of CAFOs in the state are currently covered by a waste discharge permit and are actively discharging into the waters of the state.
FACT: Whatcom dairy farmers operate under strict pollution regulations as part of the 1998 Dairy Nutrient Management Act. We’ve already discussed how effective this regulation has been in dramatically reducing dairy farms’ contribution to water pollution. WELC is promoting
regulations that would do nothing to improve water but would drive dairy farms out of business. A survey of dairy farmers in May 2015 made clear that additional regulations would drive most local farmers out of business or force them to move to less regulated areas. The result would be no significant improvement in water quality but the loss of the caretakers of the land and the replacement of cows and crops with concrete and cul-de-sacs. We find it difficult to believe that an environmental organization would take the position of WELC and we strongly encourage this organization and others who care about the environment to get better informed of the responsible action of Whatcom dairy farmers to protect our environment and community.
They claim nutrient pollution from dairies is exacerbating ocean acidification in Puget Sound’s delicate ecosystem.
FACT: We’ve made it clear that the “nutrient pollution” they use as a basis for this accusation is a fiction. WELC insists on continuing to use old data to support their irresponsible accusations, data dating back to the mid-1990s before the implementation of the 1998 Dairy Nutrient Management Act.
The Western Environmental Law Center is an Oregon-based non-profit organization funded by donors and through successful legal action where they can be paid legal fees. We believe they are either exceptionally careless in their research or intentionally dishonest in their accusations against farmers. If they succeed in persuading judges, lawmakers or regulators based on these accusations, the result will be an environmental catastrophe for Whatcom County. Water quality will not improve, but based on what we now know about the impact of development and urban sprawl, water quality will be further impaired. It’s difficult to see how a so-called environmental organization can be taking their position.
Whatcom County farmers are exceptional in many ways. One of the most important is their eagerness to be responsible stewards of the land and to minimize or eliminate any negative impacts of their farming practices. The facts bear out the positive results of regulation, compliance and proactive measures.
We encourage Whatcom County citizens and community leaders to get informed and involved. The future of farming affects all of us. We cannot afford to let these false and harmful accusations stand.
Here is "fast facts" from the Western Environment Law Center: