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Preventing Dairy Farm Manure from Polluting Our State’s Waters


Photo: CC, US Department of Agriculture
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Photo courtesy Owasco Watershed Council

Photo: Manure sandbar, courtesy Owasco Watershed Council

Rampant agricultural discharges are contaminating waters across the state. New York is the third largest milk production state with roughly 620,000 cows, each of which is estimated to produce 120 pounds of liquid manure per day. The storage and disposal of this staggering amount of waste – 27 billion pounds per year – has serious implications for human health and water quality. It has been common practice in New York to spread manure on fields during the winter when there is no agricultural benefit. Spring rain and snowmelt have resulted in manure runoff, causing over forty surface water and groundwater contamination events in recent years.

Photo: CC, US Department of Agriculture

Photo: CC, US Department of Agriculture

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (“DEC”) recently sought comments on proposed permits that will regulate how industrial-sized dairy operations dispose of their manure to avoid contaminating our waters. Riverkeeper, partnering with Earthjustice and a coalition of environmental groups, submitted comments requesting crucial improvements to DEC’s proposed water quality permit for dairies. The coalition called on DEC to prohibit what the agency calls “very risky” winter spreading activities and to set minimum levels of waste storage capacity. The goal is simple – store manure generated over the winter instead of spreading it onto the dormant farm fields to prevent it from entering our streams, lakes, and rivers. The coalition has also called on DEC to:

  • Adopt a clear and accessible public participation process whenever an industrial-sized dairy applies for permit coverage or significantly modifies its operations.
  • Place more stringent controls on manure spreading in areas with porous karst geology.
  • Mandate that all new waste storage lagoons be constructed with a liner separating wastes and soil.
  • Require yearly soil sampling and monitoring of groundwater, especially in sensitive environmental areas.

These common sense and cost effective safeguards would promote sustainable farming practices and fair competition. Riverkeeper and its partners seek to work collaboratively with DEC to implement these measures, consistent with our shared goal of ensuring that dairies operate in a safe and sustainable manner as New York’s agricultural industry continues to grow.

Riverkeeper and its partners will continue to utilize their advocacy tools to urge DEC to implement these practical pollution control measures and to get a handle on the manure waste problem and pollution spikes every spring. Anything less would jeopardize the health of New Yorkers and leave farmers on the hook for the contamination.

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