Officials having a cow over wastewater

Dairy farms face strict regulations to keep streams clean

They can produce as much waste as a small- to medium-sized town, and you can smell them coming a mile away.

Dairy farms and the average person have something of a love-hate relationship. We like drinking milk and putting it on our cereal. We like butter on our toast, ice cream on a cone, cheese with a meal and frozen yogurt for dessert.

Nitrate with our water, however, is a different story. In a disturbing trend across the Central Valley, dairies have come under scrutiny for their wastewater runoff and effects on water quality.

In Tulare County, rural residents have taken to buying bottled water for drinking and cooking. Six months ago, they sued state water-pollution regulators who had allegedly failed to protect their water supply.

The dairy dilemma has hit close to home, too: In Orland, three dairy farms have been fined for wastewater runoff into the Sacramento River. The fines, for violations this February, ranged from $5,000 to $10,000 and were issued by Ken Landau, the assistant executive officer of the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board.

“There had been problems with these dairies for some time,” Landau said. “They’re dairies that have had basically not enough land-disposal capacity to contain their wastewater.”

So, like many other dairy farms when faced with insufficient storage, the three fell into problems.

“We have been working for years to identify dairies with inadequate storage for wastewater,” he said.

Oftentimes, water board officials will fly over areas with lots of dairies to gauge the conditions. Field personnel go out and conduct checks on the ground, which can take several days longer.

“[We have to] keep an eye out for something funny going on in the streams,” Landau added, “because what they find in streams can be a major indicator of wastewater pollution.”

During winter, waste is held in what is called a dairy lagoon, a plastic-lined pond. Manure settles down on the bottom, and every so often is taken out. During the summer, wastewater is used to irrigate the feed crops, which take in nitrogen and other organic nutrients from the water as well as the manure.

While farmers can do everything in their power to prevent environmental pollution, Landau says at times the task can be almost impossible.

“Dairies are a fairly wet operation,” he said. They are contained in concrete, and there is “a lot of wash water that goes into maintaining sanitary conditions.”

Wash water plus waste becomes wastewater.

Wastewater discharge can have several environmental implications, particularly when streams of it flow to drinking-water sources.

First, it poses a bacterial health issue. Nitrogen in the wastewater can interfere with the blood’s ability to take oxygen into the body. Infants exposed to nitrates can develop “blue baby syndrome,” which can lead to coma or death.

In addition, the ammonia in wastewater is deadly to fish, and there is a lot of salt in dairy wastewater. Drinking it “could certainly make you sick,” Landau said.

Dairies are being increasingly regulated, though, said Betsy Karle, a dairy program representative of the University of California cooperative extension. The problem has been “identified and is being actively addressed,” she said, referring not just to the problems in Orland but throughout the state.

Dairies in California are currently under the parameters of a program through the water-quality control board. They are required to comply with regulations and develop nutrient and waste-management plans. About 1,500 dairies from Redding to Bakersfield have plans to ensure their facilities are up to standards and can contain appropriate waste.

The Orland dairies in question—Frank Mello Dairy, Nick Beglinger Dairy and Silveira Dairy—are “doing their best,” said Karle, who’s been addressing water-quality issues for years. She grew up on a dairy farm, received her master’s degree from UC Davis in 2003 and has worked for the cooperative extension for 10 months.

“Dairy is one of the most important industries in California,” said Karle, yet the infrastructure required of dairies is very expensive and profit margins are at a record low. “[Right now, we are] making sure dairy farms can operate in balance.”