Image of dairy cows

By John Buchser, 
Rio Grande Chapter Water Chair

The Rio Grande Chapter is helping to protect the aquifers of New Mexico by monitoring quarterly reports from 13 dairies we suspect are polluting our groundwater.

Dairies produce large amounts of waste in the process of keeping their milking facilities clean. This waste includes large quantities of manure, which is ultimately applied to fields as fertilizer for crops. The storage of this waste can be a safe process if the waste pits are lined with impermeable (synthetic) liners. However, in the development of recent regulations, there was industry opposition to these liners, due to the claimed cost. As a result, clay liners are now allowed.

The majority of dairies use plastic liners. However, about 15 percent do not.

Our coalition consultant, Kathy Martin, with the help of former Environment Department Groundwater Quality Bureau Chief Bill Olsen and chapter conservation coordinator Dan Lorimier, is training chapter volunteers to compare the permit, reports, and visual data from Google Earth to determine where violations exist.

Most existing clay liners of the type of clay we have in New Mexico generally don’t work well, so we fully expect to show that many of these dairies continue to not meet regulations for keeping our water within legal limits of groundwater pollutants.

We must file a request with the Environment Department for each quarterly report for each dairy we are looking at. Training is provided by Martin to help each volunteer monitor two or so dairies.

We started this process this summer, and already we are noting quarterly reports that raise questions. One expects that the data from monitoring wells for nitrates, sulfur, and chloride will vary slightly from quarter to quarter. If you have ever been in a chemistry class and try measuring something more than once, the likelihood is that each data point will vary slightly. If your measurement results in all the numbers being the same, especially when separated by three months, one suspects that some of those values are incorrect. But on one dairy’s quarterly report, more than 90% of the numbers were exactly the same as its previous report.

We believe there is insufficient staffing at the Environment Department to carefully review the current data against past data, and that the priority of reviewing the quarterly reports is usually reserved for daires renewing their permits (every five years). More than half of New Mexico’s dairies have contaminated groundwater in excess of state water-quality standards.

Thus our goal is to work with the department to bolster its capacity to assure New Mexicans that our dairies operate within the law. This extra oversight, we hope, will result in a more closely monitored and well-regulated industry. Clean water is one of our most valuable resources!

Take action

We would be pleased to add more folks to our dairy-monitoring team. If you’re interested, please contact Dan Lorimier at daniel.lorimier@sierraclub.org, 575-740-2927.

Volunteers monitoring dairies