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Op-ed: Fecal Matters: Ecology is writing rules for agricultural pollution

posted Jan 24, 2018, 9:38 AM by Simon Bakke   [ updated Jan 26, 2018, 11:23 AM ]
By Ann Russell, Clean Water Program Manager. Published on p.6 of Cascadia Weekly, July 20th, 2016.

Puget Sound is not just a body of water; it is an iconic seascape that defines our region. It defines who we are as Pacific Northwesterners: how we play, how we travel, how we make a living, how we connect to our surroundings. And though the largest estuarine water body in the nation is sparkling, blue and appears healthy, it is silently suffering. The rate of damage to the Puget Sound—from under-regulated industrial pollution, ocean acidification, and urban stormwater runoff—still outpaces the rate of recovery. 

This is unacceptable. As Puget Sound’s degradation continues, recovery efforts need drastic transformation. A solution scaled to the problem requires an increased commitment from governing agencies to implement, and enforce protective measures—with backbone. The waters of the state are shared by us all, including the salmon, orcas, and other native species, and must be kept clean and healthy for fish, farms, and people to thrive. 

The Washington State Department of Ecology (DOE) is responsible for ensuring that pollution from all industries is regulated to protect water quality. The DOE is now updating an important permit that regulates pollution from industrial agriculture. 

As a community with deep agricultural roots and a growing local food system, this issue hits close to home. While it’s necessary to ensure the health and viability of our local farms, certain operations of an industrial scale should be monitored so that pollution can be addressed. 

The permit that is being updated is critical—it authorizes industrial agriculture operations that confine animals to discharge pollution (manure) into waters of the state — and it sets limits and management practices for those discharges.

Industrial agriculture is currently one of the leading causes of fecal coliform pollution to waterways nationwide, and a major cause of shellfish bed and swimming beach closures in Washington state. Manure is a source of nitrates, fecal coliform, and other pollutants, and industrial agriculture infrastructure is often ill-equipped to handle the waste produced by the animals in a manner that protects waterways. 

The WSDA’s 2015 Quality Assurance Monitoring Plan and other reports have stated that there is a correlation between dairy acreage and concentration of fecal coliform in rivers. Most livestock in Whatcom County are dairy cows, and almost all of our dairies are Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), defined by the EPA as animals confined for more than 45 days per year in an area that does not produce vegetation. According to Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA), a typical dairy cow produces 120 pounds of poop each day, adding up to about 7 million pounds of manure from dairy cows in Whatcom County alone. 

From now through Aug. 17, Washington state residents concerned about the health of the Puget Sound have the opportunity to learn about and provide input on the Department of Ecology’s draft CAFO General Discharge Permit. The CAFO is one of many pollution discharge permits under the federal Clean Water Act that allow discharges of pollutants with conditions that reduce or prevent pollution. Most industries in Washington state, including oil refineries, waste water treatment plants, boatyards, and most construction sites—are required to have discharge permits.

However, our state’s previous CAFO permit expired in 2011, and today, only 11 of 450 dairies in the state operate under a permit. CAFOs should be covered by a permit that ensures they can manage the manure, litter, and process wastewater generated by the operation in a manner that protects water quality. But the draft permit that has been proposed does not adequately enforce federal clean water regulations for industrial agriculture operations or hold them accountable for known violations. Among other things, the CAFO permit should include regular groundwater monitoring and deep soil testing, so agriculture operations can determine whether manure is being applied at appropriate rates for soil uptake, or if fecal coliform bacteria and nitrates from manure are entering our surface and groundwater.

Residents who value the Puget Sound and its bounty can educate themselves about fecal coliform contamination and the draft CAFO permit, submit a written comment to Ecology, and attend the public hearing at 6pm Tues., July 26 at Whatcom Community College. The public hearing is a great chance to learn more about the CAFO draft permit and how it could be strengthened to better protect our shared water resources. 

Now is the time for our community to call upon the Department of Ecology to strengthen and enforce regulations that protect the waters of the state.