It took close to six years, but the dairy industry and a collection of environmental organizations have finally agreed on new regulations to detect and contain pollution from New Mexico’s dairies.
With a formal vote on May 12, the state Water Quality Control Commission unanimously approved what insiders call the dairy rule—one that both sides say they can live with, and maybe even which can be a collaborative example for the future.
"We were pleased to be able to work with the [dairy] industry and achieve a settlement," says Jon Block, a staff attorney at the New Mexico Environmental Law Center and legal counsel for the Citizen Coalition, a collection of environmental groups. "They came up with a rule they like, and they have ownership of it."
New Mexico's approximately 150 dairies, which are mostly located in the southwestern corner of the state, house 320,000 cows with an average herd size of about 2,200—the largest in the nation.
A dairy cow expels between 120 and 150 pounds of manure a day, meaning that a typical dairy in New Mexico accounts for around 150 tons of manure daily. Much of it goes into large lagoons that are supposed to contain it safely, but unless the lagoons are properly constructed and lined, they can leak into groundwater. According to the state Groundwater Quality Bureau, that's happening at almost 60 percent of dairies here. The new rule is aimed at preventing pollution and detecting it early, should it occur. Exactly how to do that was a sticking point for several years.
The Citizen Coalition lobbied heavily for lagoons to have plastic liners, which they say are better at containing waste water than the dirt- or clay-lined ones often used by dairies. But the Dairy Industry Group for a Clean Environment, an organization made up of New Mexico dairy owners, argued that plastic liners are prone to tearing. The two sides reached a compromise, allowing for clay-lined lagoons, but with a caveat: "One change the coalition requested and DIGCE agreed to was following EPA standards on how to construct clay liners," says Dalva Moellenberg, DIGCE's attorney. If a clay-lined lagoon leaks, Block says it may be repaired, but, he continued, "if the problem persists, it must be replaced with a plastic liner."
The other major disagreement was how to detect pollution. The coalition wanted dairies to install monitoring wells.
"Monitoring wells will detect pollution if it impacts groundwater," says Bill Olson, the former chief of the Environmental Department's Groundwater Quality Bureau. "You have to install the wells close to a potential source of pollution, so if it does cause contamination of groundwater, corrective actions can be taken."
Moellenberg, in an interview last year, argued that the wells are expensive and could themselves "be a conduit to contaminants to reach groundwater." He now feels the new regulations have addressed DIGCE's concerns.
"DIGCE never took the position that there should be no monitoring wells," he explained. "DIGCE opposed...requirements which required too many monitoring wells. The amended rules should be flexible enough."
Block is also happy with the agreements on wells. "There are requirements for the specific placement of the wells and how they're designed," says Block. "They must be designed to detect pollution."
The agreement, says Olson, "is not perfect, but it's a vast improvement over the proposed rules. We think we have a strong system in place to detect pollution, and the dairies have more flexibility."
But Arturo Uribe says caution is in order. As executive director of the Mesquite Community Action Committee, one of the groups that's part of the coalition, he's still dealing with life 2 miles from Dairy Row, a stretch of a dozen or so dairies lining I-10 east of Las Cruces. All of the dairies there are under abatement, which means pollution—in the form of nitrates—has been detected in the groundwater.
"I'm not quite sure how to feel about the new regulations," says Uribe. "The New Mexico Environmental Law Center and Jon Block at least got to be heard, but all they're doing is monitoring. My belief is that clay liners are already not working...we already have high levels of nitrates [in groundwater]. What we need is enforcement. In a perfect world, the dairies would be in compliance. That's all we're asking."