Hold on to your barn boots: A federal judge has ruled that phosphorus from cow manure is a hazardous substance.
The ruling comes from Chief Judge Walter Smith of the U.S. District Court of Western Texas. The city of Waco is suing dairy farms under federal environmental laws, claiming the farms’ manure is polluting the region’s major water source.
According to the Waco Tribune, seven of the 14 dairies sued last April have agreed to out-of-court settlements and more settlements may be forthcoming.
Background. The state of Texas considers the North Bosque River “impaired” because of excessive phosphorus and bacterial levels. The City of Waco says it’s the upsteam dairies – home to 46,000 cows – causing the problems.
Dairy manure is high in phosphorus – about 1 pound of phosphorus to every 2 pounds of nitrogen, says Barry Lambert, a dairy nutritionist with Texas Agricultural Experiment Station and Tarleton State University. The average dairy cow eliminates about 40 pounds of phosphorus per year as manure.
It’s the leftover phosphorus, the part not used by plants as a nutrient when manure is spread on crop ground, that’s the problem. Most of us recognize the potential for phosphorus runoff, which can accumulate and trigger algae growth in lakes and reservoirs. That algae bloom kills fish that can’t get enough oxygen.
The city contends phosphorus caused excessive algae growth in its water supply, Lake Waco, and that algae, in turn, caused taste and odor problems the city has had to treat. It wants the dairies to pay for those treatment costs.
Scary precedent. Texas’ agricultural community fears the new ruling paves the way for the city to apply federal and Superfund statutes to the case – creating a precedent: runoff and other discharges from the dairies constitute a release of “hazardous substances.”
And that gavel will resound throughout the countryside.
The farmers in westcentral Texas have been working for more than 10 years with the USDA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and other local and state agencies to curb runoff – and there have been compliance actions dictated by the state.
The city of Waco pursued its own plan, regardless of the state’s efforts.
One of the farm owners, George DeVries, told the Waco Tribune that “just about every dairyman around here knows they have to do something if they stay here. It’s a matter of finding out about what to do.”
DeVries has modified his farm’s waste management facilities to use the Bio Nutrient Management System, the first commercial application installed nationwide. The company describes the system as a “biological nutrient removal process for removal of nitrogen and phosphorus from the waste stream” – and it carries a pricetag in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
DeVries may – may! – be able to pencil that out with his 1,230-head herd.
Regulations targeting dairy farms on a much lesser scale – in our own neck of the woods – will be no less costly, in terms of farm management, labor and equipment. Many smaller farms will simply sell the cows, and perhaps the farm.
Clean water and conservation of natural resources are everyone’s goal. But decimating our farms should not be a means to that end.
(Editor Susan Crowell can be reached at 1-800-837-3419 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)