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Water matters: Risk management considerations for modern dairies

Progressive Dairyman Editor Peggy Coffeen Published on 16 December 2016

The contentious conversations around dairies and water these days are long passed keeping cows out of the creek; they have evolved into a complex conundrum of concerns over water scarcity and ground water impacts, according to David Crass, partner and industry group chair for agribusiness, food and beverage with Michael Best and Friedrich LLP.

Crass addressed producers at the 2016 Vita Plus Dairy Summit, where he explained some of the major water issues affecting dairies today and in the future.

Three things that Crass said keep his dairy farming clients up at night are efforts to stop irrigated agriculture and nutrient application, and a section of the Clean Water Act called Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs):

1. Irrigation of agriculture lands is at stake because resources are strained as crop and food production is driven to less productive areas. The public is calling into question the amount of water required to produce foods like almonds, which require 1 gallon of water to grow just one nut. Even in areas of the Midwest like the Central Sands of Wisconsin and in Michigan, high-capacity wells have been a source of debate.

2. Attention has also turned to the impacts of nutrient application on ground water, driven by a larger concern for drinking water safety. Crass noted, “The focus now has become looking not so much at surface water protection, but ground water protection.”

Anti-agriculture groups, driven by the vegan movement to stop animal use for food and fiber, have latched onto these campaigns. “Water scarcity, water quality is another tool they can use to oppose the growth of agriculture,” Crass added.

3. The Environmental Protection Agency defines a TMDL as a “pollution budget” and “includes a calculation of the maximum amount of a pollutant that can occur in a water body and allocates the necessary reductions to one or more pollutant sources.” This budget applies to any “impaired waters,” which are on a list generated by each state.

Crass said that the state of Michigan has declared Lake Erie as an “impaired” body of water, specifically naming agriculture as the source of pollution. This essentially “freezes” it in terms of its pollutant load. He further noted another dairy region soon to be affected by this order. “Wisconsin is hot on the TMDL development train. … The train has left the station, and those TMDLs are going to impact us for years to come.”

Crass warned that farm size is not a prerequisite for TMDLs. “It already isn’t just a CAFO issue,” Crass said. “TMDL is the perfect example of that.”

He added that farms of any size operating within a TMDL watershed will be affected. This means nutrient management standards will be “revised and ratcheted down” with an increased focus on nitrogen. Further, advancements in DNA testing means that the source of contamination can be distinguished between organic and inorganic, or in other words, livestock versus fertilizer.

Crass foresees politics playing a role in the future of these water issues, and encourages dairy producers to be active with local town and county boards and committees.  end mark

Peggy Coffeen
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