Point of contention

By Argen Duncan: Freedom New Mexico

The New Mexico Environment Department and dairy producers disagree on how dangerous dairies are to groundwater and what should be done to prevent pollution.

In this year’s legislative session, a bill passed requiring the state to enact statutes specifying what dairies must do to protect the environment. Now, the Environment Department requires various practices to prevent pollution. But there is no set common standard.

“What the dairies are looking for is sound science,” said Alva Carter Jr., whose family owns a dairy south of Portales and one near Muleshoe. “We are not asking to be deregulated.”

Carter, a member of Dairy Industry for a Cleaner Environment, said his industry believes dairies cause 2 percent or less of all water contamination in New Mexico.

“And that’s not a number we’re proud of either, but it’s a far cry from saying we have a big problem,” he said.

Carter said he doesn’t believe dairies are a danger to groundwater in Roosevelt, Curry or Lea counties because the ground would filter out pollutants before they reached the aquifer. Areas with rivers or groundwater closer to the surface would probably need different rules, he said.

NMED Ground Water Quality Bureau Chief William C. Olson said 65 percent of New Mexico dairies have caused groundwater contamination.

Olson said the main pollutant dairies may put out is nitrate from manure and organic waste. In infants, nitrate can reduce the ability of blood to carry oxygen, and the resulting oxygen starvation can kill the child, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Web site.

Nitrate can leak out of lagoons where dairies contain wastewater and storm runoff, be over-applied to farm fields as fertilizer or run down clean water lines.

Also, dairies may have problems with salts — chloride and total dissolved solids — if they use evaporation ponds to help dispose of dirty water, Olson said.

According to the EPA Web site, those substances aren’t dangerous to human health. The site says they can give water an unappealing color or taste, and cause corrosion, build-up on fixtures or loose deposits within water systems.

Bureau records indicate that of 32 dairies in Roosevelt County, 20 are exceeding limits for nitrate in groundwater, 12 are now or have in the past surpassed limits for chloride and total dissolved solids, and one has unknown contaminant levels. Of 28 dairies in Curry County, five are exceeding limits on nitrate, two show too much chloride and total dissolved solids, and four have no monitoring wells to check the water, according to the records.

Olson said the state requires dairies to get discharge permits for the purpose of protecting water. Every four or five years, he said, the state adds new conditions to the permits to adjust practice and prevent pollution.

“And we’ve had some interest, of course, from the dairies because those things cost money,” Olson said.

Those changes now cost $300,000 to $600,000 every five years, and aren’t based on science, Carter said.

Dairy producers want clear laws that specify everything that needs to be done so they can figure in the cost when building the dairy, he said.

Carter said members of his industry also want to protect their own and others’ water supply.

Dairy owners live on the facility and drink the water, he said. Also, if the animals had bad water, Carter said, it would decrease their productivity.

The dairy industry and Environment Department agree on the smaller points of needed pollution prevention, but they disagree on how to use monitoring wells, he said.

Monitoring wells are narrow wells drilled to the groundwater to allow for quarterly sampling of the water to test for contaminants.

Carter said the department requires dairies to put the wells too close to lagoons.

In Roosevelt and Curry County, where groundwater is 100 feet or more below the surface, the wells act as conduits for pollutants to run down into groundwater if a lagoon does leak, he said.

Without the wells, Carter said, the ground would filter out the contaminants before they reached the water table.

He said monitoring wells should be set back from lagoons where they will register pollutants if the ground doesn’t filter them out first.

Olson said the monitoring wells must go next to the lagoons for early detection of pollution, and his bureau disagrees that they cause pollution. He said the lagoons aren’t supposed to leak, and the wells should be constructed properly.

“Monitoring wells are a nationally recognized mechanism for detecting contamination,” Olson said.

The wells are an environmental industry standard used at various sites and have been through other trade associations, he said.

Carter said many states don’t use monitoring wells, and there are better ways to check for contamination.