Decades of industry self-management make rules acceptable
North Coast water-quality regulators plan to complete regulations for how dairies deal with manure to prevent contamination of waterways during rainstorms, but the industry in Marin and Sonoma counties has a three-decade head start thanks to a public-private self-monitoring program.
The North Coast Water Quality Control Board late this spring is aiming to approve a three-tier permitting program for dairies in the region, which includes parts of Marin, Sonoma and other coastal counties whose watersheds drain into the Pacific.
"At the end of the day, I think it's something the dairy industry can live with," said Lex McCorvey, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.
Dairies elsewhere in Marin and southern Solano County are under the jurisdiction of the San Francisco Bay water board, and those in north Solano, the Central Valley board.
The North Coast is among the last of the regions in the state to adopt such rules, largely because of a program developed by the U.C. Cooperative Extension farm adviser for Sonoma County in 1976 in response to clean-water law.
The program is managed by the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, which hires an independent analyst to take water samples from multiple watersheds during winter months. The bureau's Animal Resource Management Committee meets regularly with federal, state and county health and species regulators and resource agencies to talk about problems uncovered during the tests and solutions.
The North Coast proposal, first floated in January 2010, will have dairies choose one of three permits that best suits the operation's conditions. One is the federal National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit for Confined Animal Facilities, which falls under the national Clean Water Act.
Operating under state clean water rules are the General Waste Discharge Requirements Order and the conditional Waiver of Discharge Requirements.
"If producers have an uncorrected discharge or proposes to discharge, then they would go for an NPDES permit," said Paul Martin, who tackles water-quality issues statewide for Western United Dairymen. "And we don't recommend that because it conflicts with state law that you can't discharge."
State law defines a "discharge" as application of manure to pastures, where rainwater runoff carries it to waterways. Federal law defines "discharge" as manure water released or allowed to flow there.
So producers really have two likely viable options, according to Mr. Martin. Many North Coast producers likely qualify for the conditional waiver, subjecting themselves to inspections by water board inspectors.
For the most part, Marin dairies operating under the San Francisco Bay water board's jurisdiction didn't have to make changes to management operations with the adoption of the new permit system, said Dominic Grossi, president of the Marin County Farm Bureau and partner in George Grossi & Son dairy near Novato.
"What we had to do was document what we're doing, like fixing broken pipes and manure pumps and taking pictures that we're cleaning all the corrals and cleaning manure pits and locking up the animals in the barns during the rains," he said.
One of the big innovations that came with the Sonoma-Marin dairy self-monitoring system was the stall barn, which brought cows in from muddy pastures during the winter months, according to Mr. Martin. Dairymen had moved cows away from creeks onto higher terrain during rains, but the cows' movement still chewed up the turf.