Dairies large, efficient water users

By Gary Mitchell

Dairy operations in the region tend to use large amounts of water, but proponents say they use it efficiently — with little impact to the area’s ground-water source.
“Sure they use a lot of water, but their water is never wasted,” said Stan Jones, Curry County extension agent. “The water is used three times before it’s eventually pumped out into the fields. Show me another industry that uses the same water three times. They’re very efficient in their use of water. We ought to do that in town — all the water we use washing and showering could be reused to water our yards.”
But some area residents consider dairies the area’s greatest polluters.
Paul Elders, founder and spokesman for Concerned Citizens for Clean Water, has unsuccessfully sought a five-year moratorium on dairy expansion in the region because he is concerned about the effects of dairy farming on the Ogallala Aquifer, the underground water supply for the High Plains.
He contends a 3,000-head dairy that uses 335,000 gallons of water a day is not efficient. He claims one dairy cow produces 120 pounds of wet manure a day, so a 3,000-head dairy produces the same amount of waste as 90,000 people — twice the population of Curry County.
“It’s frightening,” he said. “Where’s all this going? They’re spraying it on the fields. Nitrate is a by-product of manure. Sure, a certain amount is absorbed by the plants, but you can’t spray it day after day on the field and expect it to stay there. They’ve overloaded the soil.”
Jay Lazarus, president and senior hydrologist with Glorieta Geo-Science, an environmental consulting firm hired by Dairy Producers of New Mexico, disputes Elders’ use of numbers.
“Those numbers are taken out of context because of the way dairies recycle the green water and manure solids to naturally fertilize crops,” he said.
Dairy advocates say their industry is well-regulated, and most dairies adhere to those strict guidelines and procedures.
“We have to do soil sampling,” said Sharon Lombardi, a lobbyist for Dairy Producers of New Mexico. “It’s a concern for everybody. If the dairies don’t measure up, they get their permits pulled. We do constant ground-water monitoring.”
“What the state is requiring now of dairies is more stringent than it was several years ago,” said Cathy Ratcliff, project manager for Glorieta Geo-Science.
Maura Hanning, program manager for ground water pollution prevention for the New Mexico Environment Department, said the state requires certain monitoring and reporting requirements that check for contamination. Enforcement, however, is difficult with a small staff.
For example, there are 180 permitted dairies in the state, and 57 exceed ground water standards. Some of those are older facilities that have a hard time becoming compliant, Hanning said.
“About one-third of (New Mexico dairies) fail to follow our requirements,” she said. “You’re lucky in your area because it’s so deep to ground water.”
An overabundance of nitrates in the soil can be a problem — but not as much in eastern New Mexico, Ratcliff said, “because of the farming practices and the balancing of the nitrates in the soil.”
Elders disagrees: “Nitrates can’t be absorbed by the soil or be filtered out. It has to go on through to the ground water.”
“Although the EPA maximum allowable level is 10 parts of nitrate per million parts of water, 2.46 parts per million will cause women to have three times the likelihood of bladder cancer, according to a recent study in Iowa.
“If the maximum allowable level is 10, the state has on record one dairy south of Clovis with over 100 parts per million nitrate in the water below the dairy. Cows abort calves at 100 parts per million. It’s a serious problem.”
Lombardi said she doubts those figures. “I’m not aware of any such (Iowa) study. And as for that dairy south of Clovis, how can that be? If that were true, they couldn’t keep operating as a dairy. All of our dairymen live on farms. They don’t want to pollute their own water.”
Dairy promoters contend the industry pumps about $225 million into Curry County’s economy. The dairy payroll statewide is estimated at $25 million a year, Lombardi said.