Dairy producers in New Mexico recently ended a nearly decade-long off-and-on negotiation process over nutrient management regulations with the New Mexico Environmental Department and environmental advocacy groups.

Cooley walt polo
Editor & Podcast Host / Progressive Dairy

robert hagevoort

Progressive Dairyman Editor Walt Cooley recently discussed what dairy owners in other parts of the U.S. could learn from New Mexico’s situation with New Mexico State University’s Robert Hagevoort.

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Explain the groundwater regulation issues producers in New Mexico have been dealing with for nearly the past decade.

HAGEVOORT: New Mexico has always had fairly straightforward regulations when it came to groundwater protection. Our state environmental department regulates groundwater; we don’t deal with the EPA much because we have limited surface water.

As our dairies grew in the ’90s, we had a lot of emphasis on groundwater protection. Our groundwater bureau has acknowledged throughout the years that dairies are not the number one groundwater pollution issue throughout the state. We’re a very rural state, so there are a lot of septic tanks. The environmental department over the years has recognized that is the number one issue in New Mexico when it comes to preserving groundwater quality.

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However, some of those dairies that have been here for a long time may have some groundwater issues, not necessarily because of mismanagement but because of historically permitted agricultural land uses. One of which was manure-lined lagoons, which were historically promulgated as a best management practice, a practice we now know is problematic. So that’s a preface to where this story started eight years ago.

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What started it all?

HAGEVOORT: The problem we were running into eight years ago when the dairy industry was growing really fast in New Mexico was that the environmental department hired a lot of new regulatory technicians. They were responsible to make sure regulations were properly executed on dairies and that they were in compliance with their discharge permits – or DPs as they’re called here.

This permit in New Mexico allows producers to operate and describes how the nutrient management is performed. Actually it is a non-discharge permit because it describes how to control green-water and storm-water nutrients from leaving the property.

The problem was: The discretion of the state’s environmental department caseworkers was endless.

There was no rhyme or reason, but sometimes they would go out and say, “Well, I think you’ve got an issue on that monitoring well, so between here and there something is happening; I want you to drill another monitoring well.

And while we’re at it, maybe drill another one over here and another one over there, and maybe we need to start looking at re-lining your lagoons.” Compliance might mean one thing for this dairy, and then on another dairy it would be completely different.

So the dairy industry initiated contact with the environmental department to say, “Listen, we need some more predictable, scientific-based guidelines as to what needs to happen in these discharge permit renewals.”

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Did they listen to your request?

HAGEVOORT: All this happened under Gov. Bill Richardson’s (D-N.M.) administration. We agreed to have a series of stakeholder meetings among the environmental department on one side, the environmental advocacy groups and the dairy industry. We were going to sit down and talk about what the science says that could be guidance for us on these guidelines.

But at the first stakeholder meeting we walked into, the environmental department had already written the script of what they thought the rules needed to be. And they said, “Well, we’re just going to use this proposal as the guideline for the stakeholder process. OK?”

Well, the rules that were eventually adopted were almost identical to what they proposed at the first stakeholder meeting. None of the input from the dairy industry was ever incorporated into those new guidelines. Those rules were passed and signed into law under Gov. Richardson, right before he went out of office. That was right before Gov. Susana Martinez (R-N.M.) was elected.

One of Gov. Martinez’s first actions when she came into office was to nullify those rules. She appointed a new state environmental secretary, who then appointed a whole slate of new caseworkers at the environmental department.

They told us they were going to look at these rules because there was absolutely no room for any variation in them. I mean, they were like a straightjacket. For example, if there was a groundwater concern, then a dairyman would need to go ahead and drill so many more monitoring wells, regardless of the fact that it might have to be right smack in the middle of his commodity area or the middle of a road.

There was no relief but to apply for variances. In New Mexico, those variances all have to be heard by the Water Quality Control Commission (WQCC).

All of a sudden we had every consultant applying for variances on behalf of their customers. As a result, the WQCC and the environmental department discovered these new regulations were not workable.

The dairy industry suggested to rewrite these rules to where they would be workable. So we went back into another set of stakeholder meetings in which the industry argued for more flexibility in meeting regulatory requirements for the number of monitoring wells and for the specific use of materials for lagoon liners, among others.

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And were you successfulat getting the environmental stakeholders to listen?

HAGEVOORT: Recently, the WQCC approved the state environmental department’s new rules. Those still have the same strict guidelines to protect groundwater quality, and that’s the number one priority, but the rules do have new flexibility to say, “OK, if you need an additional monitoring well, it can be either right outside the brim of the lagoon or behind my commodity area because otherwise it would put it right in the middle of my commodity area or my hay barn.”

It allows now for producers without any groundwater concerns to put in clay-lined lagoons, if they wish. Or if they are located in what we call the sandbox around Portales, they are allowed to opt for a synthetically lined lagoon because clay may not be locally available. So, yes, on paper these new rules have the flexibility to be workable.

Now we have a huge backlog of discharge permits that need to be renewed. Normally, they’re renewed every four years here in New Mexico. Consultants can start working with the environmental department on renewing those permits.

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How workable do you thinkthis new regulatory agreement will be for New Mexico dairy producers?

HAGEVOORT: There still may be a few things which may have to be clarified down the road, but all in all, this set of rules and guidelines in place right now should protect groundwater and have the desired flexibility for producers.

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What have you learnedabout working with state officials and environmental advocacy groups through all of this?

HAGEVOORT: As the dairy industry has always said: “We live on these premises. We also use groundwater. We use it for our good as well as for our livestock. It is in our best interest that we have clean groundwater.” It is possible in our mind to sit down with regulators and environmental groups and reach a common goal, which should be protecting groundwater.

Some groups may want this or that. There are a lot of different demands that are out there. But at the end of the day, it has to be a workable solution to where a dairy can continue to operate. Because if the rules are so strict the dairy cannot continue to operate, then sustainability is no longer, either. So if the real interest is protecting groundwater and not trying to put an industry out of business, then a solution is very workable. If the motivation is any different, then of course you’ll never get to an agreement.

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Is protecting groundwaterquality an up-and-coming issue for dairies?

HAGEVOORT: Absolutely. It has been and will be. In New Mexico, it’s really driven to the point because of our water quantity situation as well. As we have less and less water in our wells, water quality becomes more and more of an issue. So this will especially be an issue in areas of the country that have been hit by drought over the last 10 years.

Really, the key point is that dairy owners and cows need quality water to produce milk, right? The cows are drinking that water, the dairy’s families are drinking that water, employees are drinking that water, the dairy’s neighbors are drinking that water, and so we need to have good-quality water. It’s in everybody’s interest. It’s never been off the table. PD

Walt Cooley