Agreement Reached By New Mexico Dairy Industry, Environmental Advocates

By Mónica Ortiz Uribe
April 07, 2015
Mónica Ortiz Uribe
An employee prepares to milk cows at Big Sky dairy south of Las Cruces, New Mexico.
Mónica Ortiz Uribe
Calves wait to be fed at Big Sky dairy south of Las Cruces, New Mexico. The infant cows stay in individual pens for their first three months of life.

New Mexico's dairy industry may soon have a revised set of rules that both farmers and environmental advocates can agree on.

The agreement reached between representatives for the dairy industry, environmental groups and state officials was presented at a public hearing in Roswell, New Mexico, on Monday. The hearing, which was scheduled to go on for five days, lasted less than six hours.

"It happened very quickly," said Dal Moellenberg, an attorney representing the dairies. "It was a little bit of a surprise to all of us, but we're very happy that we were able to reach an agreement."

At issue is a set of rules enacted in 2011 that deal primarily with how dairies manage wastewater and monitor groundwater. The industry appealed the current set of rules calling them overly burdensome and costly. Environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, contend the rules are in place to prevent groundwater contamination. Six years ago the state environment department found that more than 50 percent of dairies in New Mexico were leeching high levels of nitrates.

Under the settlement proposal the state would allow the dairies to line wastewater lagoons meant to catch manure runoff with two feet of compacted clay. The clay, which can be locally sourced in some parts of New Mexico, would have to be installed according to guidelines provided by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. The liners would also need to be regularly monitored to detect nitrate contamination above the state standard. If the clay liners fail to provide adequate protection, the state could require the addition of synthetic liners.       

Also under the settlement, wells monitoring groundwater contamination would be installed on case-by-case basis depending on the hydrogeology beneath the dairies.

"We have dedicated a great deal of attention and effort to try to get the dairy industry in New Mexico into a state of compliance where they are not polluting the groundwater," said Dan Lorimier with the Sierra Club. 

The proposed settlement must be approved by the 15 members of New Mexico’s Water Quality Control Commission before it can go into effect.