DEP regulations are such that they allow dairymen to put about 19 million pounds of nitrates into the ground yearly in the Middle Suwannee, Lower Suwannee and Santa Fe basins. As a partial result, both rivers have nitrates pollution. Who should pay for the fix, the dairymen or the Florida taxpayer? Or both?
Dairies to get $1.4M in state funding to reduce nitrate waste
The majority of the projects that the district’s Governing Board approved on June 9 involve the expansion of the on-site ponds and lagoons that store cow waste the dairies use as fertilizer on the crops the cows eat. The dairies will be able to fertilize less often to keep the ponds from filling, reducing the amount of nitrates seeping into the ground and groundwater, said Kevin Wright, a professional engineer with the district.
In some cases, unlined ponds that allow nitrates to leach into the groundwater will be converted to lined ponds or concrete.
The dairies receiving funding ranged from large operations like Alliance Dairies’ Piedmont Dairy in Gilchrist County, the American Dairyco operation in Gilchrist and Shenandoah Dairy in Suwannee to smaller, family-owned operations like Lonesome Meadows Farm and Barrington Dairy in Suwannee County and TW Byrd’s Sonc Inc. in Lafayette County.
Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson, president of the environmental groups Our Santa Fe River and Save Our Suwannee, said she has concerns about using taxpayer money to fund the projects.
“I’m pleased that the state recognizes dairy farms’ need to reduce their nitrate loading,” Malwitz-Jipson wrote in an email. “However, allowing our taxes to pay for their fixes is a lot like corporate welfare. These are not small farms; these large farms have created large wastes, FDEP should be holding them accountable to their pollution contributions to our watersheds. Large-scale farming should be responsible farmers and deal with their wastes as any other business would be required to do so.”
The district is funding the projects with $920,000 from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for nitrate reduction projects at dairies in springsheds, $250,000 from the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services and about $258,700 in district funds.
The dairies have much smaller required contributions — at least 10 percent of the project price.
Wright said the lion’s share of the money was public funding because of the public interest in protecting the area’s springs and rivers.
Some projects will expand the storage capacity of the lagoons and ponds to hold a minimum 21 days of waste when the industry standard is seven days.
At some dairies, the systems for spraying the waste as fertilizer will be converted to more efficient drip-nozzle systems to reduce the amount applied.
Based on the applications from the dairies that sought money after the district put out an invitation to apply, the projects will combine to reduce the amount of nitrates going into the ground by 100,000 pounds a year.
The Suwannee and Santa Fe rivers are both polluted by nitrates, and the water management district and state have set the goal of getting nitrate levels in each district to 0.35 milligrams per liter.
Some $5 million in funding is going to fund projects that reduce water usage and nitrate pollution at agricultural businesses in the district.
There are about 35 to 40 dairies in the district, Wright said. A 2008 Florida Department of Environmental Protection report said dairies accounted for about 19 million pounds out of the 132 million gallons of nitrates going into the ground in a year in the Middle Suwannee, Lower Suwannee and Santa Fe basins.
In an email, Alliance Dairies’ Charlie Smith said the Piedmont Dairy is in compliance with its state-required plan for managing nutrients and its state permits so the company might not have incentive to make the on-site improvements without the partnership with the water management district.
The project at Piedmont will include expanding the lined lagoon on site and installation of drop nozzles that spread fertilizer more efficiently.
“Piedmont Dairy is in compliance with our Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan (CNMP) that was approved by DEP and is the basis for the Industrial Wastewater Permit that was issued by DEP and allows us to operate the dairy,” Smith wrote.
“To that extent there is no reason for us to add capacity to our wastewater system and to spend those dollars that are required for a cost share project. The increased capacity will allow us, however, to manage that waste more effectively. We can hold that wastewater in the lagoon during rain events instead of having to irrigate to lower the level in the lagoon. The ability to delay effluent applications for optimal nutrient uptake by crops will significantly reduce nutrients losses, particularly nitrogen, to groundwater. For that reason added wastewater storage capacity would seem to be a win/win for both the state and our farm.”
Representatives of other dairies could not be reached for comment.