Dairy Farms and Water Quality
Questions and Answers
Who are Whatcom Family Dairies and why are you reaching out to the community
There are approximately 100 family dairy farmers in Whatcom County which are represented by the Whatcom County Dairy Federation. In April of this year the Dairy Federation voted to initiate a community information and outreach program in response to serious threats to the future of dairy farming in our community. A steering committee of dairy farmers was established to guide this effort and a communication professional engaged to help prepare the information and plan the program. Fred Likkel is the local representative of the Washington State Dairy Federation and one of the primary leaders of this effort. Steering committee members include family dairy farmers Rich Appel, Mitch Moorlag, Harold Van Berkum, Mike Schoneveld and Jeremy Visser.
What specific threats are dairy farmers facing?
There are three specific concerns. First, earlier this year a Spokane judge ruled against four large dairies in Yakima related to water quality concerns. Previously these farmers signed a consent decree with the EPA. The judge’s ruling and the heavy-handed approach of the EPA represent significant threats to all dairy farmers. Second, some of the Lummi shellfish beds were closed due to high levels of fecal coliform. Media reports have incorrectly placed the primary blame for this on Whatcom dairy farms. Third, environmental lawyers from Oregon, including one involved in the Yakima lawsuit against farmers, have prompted very negative media reports and have written articles in the local press that place the blame for water quality problems on Whatcom dairies. They also are putting heavy pressure on the Department of Ecology to impose very expensive and unnecessary new regulations on dairies.
How are you responding to these threats?
With a number of voices, including some activists in our own community, making accusations against farmers it is very important that we communicate the facts. We want the community to understand the incredible progress Whatcom family dairy farms have made in preventing pollution from manure in the past fifteen years. We also believe that we need to marshal the support of the many in our community who want to see dairy farming continue in our community. This support is essential as government leaders and regulators face increasing pressure from lawyers and activists who seek to regulate or tax our dairy farmers out of business. We are communicating this through outreach to the media, through a website www.whatcomfamilydairies.com, through social media such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and by fact checking inaccurate media reports and false accusations coming from the environmental lawyers or activists. We also plan an advertising campaign with the support of sponsors who want to see dairy farming continue. All of this is focused on increasing understanding in our community and building the support we need to help secure a future for dairy farming.
What message are you trying to convey to the community?
We want them to know the future of dairy farming is not something we can take for granted. We believe the vast majority of Whatcom County residents would much prefer to see our family farms than the alternative of more suburbanization into farmland. But we need their help in countering those who falsely accuse farmers of water quality problems and environmental damage. We are asking this question: cows and crops or concrete and cul-de-sacs? We think most would choose cows and crops, but they need to understand that we can’t fight for this future alone. We are in this together and it is their future at stake as well.
How do you know dairy farmers are not to blame for shellfish bed closures and other water quality problems?
The truth is, the last time the Lummi shellfish beds were closed in the mid-to late 1990s, the conclusion of officials was that the dairy farms were the primary source of the fecal coliform that forced the closure. At that time, farmers distributed their nutrients or manure, at any time of year regardless of rainfall and often too carelessly, resulting in runoff and pollution. But in 1998 a huge change occurred. The Dairy Nutrient Management Act was passed and dairy farms became highly regulated. Every dairy farmer must have a permit to farm and that includes developing a nutrient management plan. This is a very detailed plan for when the nutrients can be distributed on fields. The implementation of this act and the many proactive measures Whatcom farmers took beyond the regulations had a dramatic impact. This was demonstrated by water quality testing in the early 2000s that showed fecal coliform counts in the Nooksack and related streams down from 40% to 80%. Even today, farmers are not perfect. Spills and accidents occasionally happen and some farmers have been cited and fined. But overall, the situation is completely different than in the late 1990s and our community can and should be proud of the investment made and excellent performance of farmers in protecting water and the environment.
Dairy farms have very large manure lagoons. Why do they have them and aren’t they part of the problem?
The manure lagoons are featured in the attacks against farmers by our critics. But lagoons are an essential part of the solution, not the problem. In order to carefully manage when manure is applied to fields, it has to be stored during the rainy season to avoid runoff. Lawyers and media reports have claimed these lagoons leak into the groundwater and that is what causes the fecal coliform. The truth is that the amount they leak is very small, particularly when compared to residential septic systems. Research done by the Whatcom Conservation District makes clear that just five residential septic systems can leak up to ten times more than a one acre manure lagoon. Lawyers are making inaccurate claims about manure leaking in order to force regulations that would require plastic liners. But the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service has made it clear that the manure in the lagoon increases the imperviousness of the clay liner by up to ten times. It’s an example of a very expensive potential regulation that would cause many farmers to go out of business but would do essentially nothing to protect water or the environment.
If lagoons and dairy farmers aren’t the cause of the fecal coliform that has closed the Lummi shellfish beds, who is?
There are several likely causes. First, Canada. It is a little known fact that 53% of our water supply is in Canada. There is intensive agriculture across the border, including poultry farms, mushroom farms and dairy farms in addition to berries. They do not have the same regulations we do. Last summer the fecal coliforms coming from Canada across the border into the Fishtrap watershed were so high it made national news across Canada and renewed calls for regulations. But we believe the primary contributor is the suburbanization into farmland and the growth of our cities in northern Whatcom County. We’ve already seen the impact of residential septic systems. We also know from the Whatcom County report that the very highest counts of fecal coliform in streams was not near dairy farms but instead in the testing locations in the City of Lynden or directly downstream from the city. This is where the County report stated the focus needs to be. Bellingham has a strong anti-growth mindset. But that has meant much faster growth in the County. Ferndale and Lynden are growing at a rate up to seven times faster than Bellingham and much of that into areas that previously were farmed. This impacts water quality, not just from septic systems, but from residential fertilizer use and hobby farm fertilizer and animals which are not regulated. Another surprising factor is the very great increase in wildlife, particularly waterfowl. A goose poops 1.5 pounds per day and a swan considerably more. The farmland hosts these beautiful animals, but like other causes of fecal runoff other than cows, these are not subject to regulation.
We’ve been talking about fecal coliform because of the shellfish beds, but what about nitrates. With 29% of Whatcom County wells higher than allowed, aren’t farmers to blame for this?
There is no question that farmers of all kinds have contributed to higher than allowed nitrate levels, because nitrates are related to nitrogen which is in fertilizer and needed for crops to grow. Nitrogen is a key component of both commercial fertilizer and organic fertilizer or manure. There are several important facts to consider. Nitrate levels have been high ever since testing began. Nitrates also occur naturally from decaying plants and animals and with our high water table and rainy conditions, it is quite possible that high levels are quite normal in northern Whatcom County. There is the impact of the 53% of our watershed in Canada with its intense agriculture and heavy application of fertilizer, particularly right above Lynden as documented by Environment Canada.
It should also be pointed out that nitrates in fruits and vegetables are considered essential and part of a healthy diet. We are strongly encouraged by the federal government to eat more fruits and vegetables in part for their nitrates which contribute to healthy hearts. The basis that the EPA set the very low level of nitrates in drinking water was a study in the late 1940s about nitrates and blue baby syndrome. But the studies on this disease since the early 1950s have pointed to bacteria and not nitrates as the cause for this. Fortunately, nitrates are one of the contaminants under review by the EPA. Of course, as long as the EPA maintains that nitrates are a contaminant, we remain concerned about it. But we do hope that conflicting messages from the federal government about nitrates will be resolved in the near future.
If farmers don’t believe they are the cause, what does this mean for their work on improving water quality?
Whatcom dairy farmers remain committed to being careful stewards of the land, the environment and our water. Our future is based on how well we protect the environment. There are many examples of investment and effort beyond the regulations that dairy farmers are doing. One example is the leadership role Whatcom farmers played in installing bio-gas digesters, which take manure and food waste and turn them into usable products. Another example is the Watershed Improvement Districts. Dairy farmers played a key role in setting these public entities up which allow farmers to work together on water-related projects including water conservation and environmental protection. Because the causes of water problems are many and complicated, we believe we need to work closely and cooperatively with the various governments and stakeholders involved. That’s one reason we recently hosted leaders of the Lummi Nation on a tour of our family dairy farms and shared with them what we are doing and what we are willing to do to address their concerns about the shellfish beds and other water supply and water quality issues. This is a first step but shows our farmers are willing to continue to work hard to protect the environment including water.
What can those interested in this issue do to help?
First, become better informed. Understand there are those who for their own reasons or out of misguided activism seem to want to put an end to our family farms. We encourage everyone in the community to learn the facts. Sign up on our website to get updates and get specific suggestions on actions they can take to support farmers. We may ask them to write letters to elected leaders or regulators, to attend hearings and meetings, or other ways to demonstrate their visible support. But the most important is to learn for themselves the facts about our dairy farmers and water issues. An informed and supportive community is absolutely necessary to secure a long term future for our family dairy farms in Whatcom County.