OLYMPIA — State officials are rewriting water quality rules and the update could change how Snohomish County farmers use manure lagoons.
The Department of Ecology is updating permits it issues for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. Those are farms that discharge waste from animals confined for at least 45 days during the year in an area where they cannot graze. They can be dairy, beef, hog or poultry farms.
The rewrite will clarify when a permit is required and also address groundwater-pollution concerns that were not part of permits in the past. No details have been finalized, said Jon Jennings, who is rewriting the permits for the ecology department.
Right now, no Snohomish County farms have the permits. Most of the 20 manure lagoons here are concentrated along the Stillaguamish, Snohomish, Skykomish and Snoqualmie rivers. The Stillaguamish watershed has 10 lagoons within 3,000 feet of a waterway; eight more fall along the Snohomish or Skykomish.
Currently, lagoons are not considered a primary source for pollution under state standards required by the federal Clean Water Act.
“We have to address groundwater in the new permit, and lagoons are a piece of that,” Jennings said. “We still have to decide how big of a piece.”
An environmental group is pushing to expand the permits to cover any farm that has a lagoon used to store manure. Dairy farmers — one of the largest groups that could be affected by permit changes — say manure management already is well-monitored and new permit requirements could cripple small farms.
The Western Environmental Law Center wants mandatory monitoring of ground and surface waters near all manure lagoons. The group also wants the state to require synthetic liners for earthen lagoons to prevent leaking.
The changes would better protect Puget Sound and Washington waterways from nitrates, fecal coliform and other harmful nutrients in manure, said Andrea Rodgers, a Seattle-based attorney with the nonprofit law center. The regulations also would help salmon and shellfish, she said.
But imposing more regulations adds to production costs and could end up putting farms out of business, said Dan Wood, executive director of the Washington State Dairy Federation, a nonprofit trade group that represents dairy producers. If the rules are changed, it would hit small farms the hardest, he said.
Lagoons, whether they’re lined with clay or synthetic material, are designed not to leak, he said. Manure is an important resource for farmers.
“This is valuable stuff they don’t want to waste,” Wood said.
Ecology officials say it’s widely acknowledged that manure lagoons do leak. How much varies by location, depth and design, Jennings said.
Existing state permits for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations expired in 2011 but remain in effect for farms that already had one. The state is required to update and issue new permits under the Clean Water Act.
Five dairies, four beef farms and one poultry farm in Washington have permits. None are located in Snohomish County.
Right now, the permits are only required for agricultural operations that discharge waste into surface or groundwater, Jennings said.
“You have to have pollution before a permit’s required,” he said.
Farms can self-report and the state has a program for people to make complaints or to request an inspection. Ecology works closely with the state Department of Agriculture on inspections and responding to complaints, Jennings said.
If the state decides to impose stricter pollution limits in the new version of the permits, local dairy and beef operations that never have been required to get a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation permit may find they need one.
“I think there will be more facilities that need coverage, but I can’t say yet what that number will be,” Jennings said.
It’s unclear how strict the new permits may be, but they will add stronger protections for ground and surface water, Ecology spokeswoman Sandy Howard said. The department has been gathering ideas from environmentalists, farmers and others as they draft the permit and there will be a formal public comment period in the fall.
Manure lagoons that do not fall under the permits might be regulated in other ways, Howard said. The state Department of Agriculture has guidelines, as do local conservation districts.
“A permit is used to limit pollution,” she said. “We can’t stop it completely, but we try to limit it.”
Learn more about the permit update at www.ecy.wa.gov.