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The scarcity of water in some Western states is a very well known story. But what's our water story here in Idaho? How much do we have? Where does it come from? And how does water fit in our rapidly growing region?

Watering Idaho: Is The Dairy Industry Putting Rural Drinking Water At Risk?

Frankie Barnhill
Boise State Public Radio
This man-made lagoon is a typical way of storing waste from cow manure and urine on large dairies. The standard from the USDA includes a compacted clay soil liner that is meant to keep the waste from seeping into the soil.

Earlier in this series, we told you about the importance of ground water in Idaho. The state relies on underground aquifers and private wells to quench the thirst of 90-95 percent of the population. But in southern Idaho, some people are worried about how contaminants from agriculture – specifically animal feedlots – could be impacting the water supply in rural areas.

Credit Frankie Barnhill / Boise State Public Radio
Boise State Public Radio
Esther Ceja of the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality talks with kids at the Wilder Cinco de Mayo event last spring. The DEQ does outreach events in communities where nitrate contamination is a problem.

This concern is what brought Esther Ceja to the Cinco de Mayo party last spring in Wilder, Idaho. Ceja is with the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the state agency that monitors groundwater.

She stands in the back of city park at the agency's public outreach booth, answering questions about water quality as kids approach shyly to snatch a piece of candy from the table. 

Ceja speaks both Spanish and English, which comes in handy as she steps aside to talk to a Latino farmworker concerned about drinking water contamination. She tells him about nitrates – contaminants found in wells in the farm country surrounding Wilder.

The man tells Ceja that his family does not drink from a private well, but his coworkers do. He takes some nitrate test strips to give to his friends.

Aquifer Contamination: 'Death By A Thousand Cuts'

Nitrate is a compound that’s difficult to get rid of once in a well or aquifer. The biggest risk is to newborns who can die from reduced oxygen in their blood – a disorder known as blue baby syndrome. Pregnant women are also at risk.

The DEQ says nitrates are the most common groundwater contaminant in Idaho. They come from three sources: inorganic fertilizer, human waste and animal waste. And to Justin Hayes of the Idaho Conservation League, that last source is the most concerning.

“Contaminating an aquifer is very rarely from one source or one site," says Hayes. "It’s sort of ‘death by a thousand cuts’. And across a lot of southern Idaho, there are many dairies and feedlots and so any one of them is contributing some amount to this problem.”

Justin Hayes of the Idaho Conservation League in Boise. Hayes says the dairy industry needs to have more rigorous waste-management standards to protect groundwater.

Hayes has watched the number of dairy cows increase in southern Idaho in the last couple of decades, especially in counties like Twin Falls, Cassia, Gooding and Jerome. Today, more than half a million cows are milked in Idaho – making the state third in milk production in the nation.

At the same time, Hayes says he’s seen the quality of the aquifer decline.

“The average dairy cow might produce 80 pounds of manure and liquids a day; that’s the equivalent of 20 million humans. So that’s like the entire city of Los Angeles dumping their waste untreated across fields in southern Idaho.”

He says that without improved practices to manage animal waste at large dairies, the nitrate levels in the aquifer will get worse in years to come.

But Idaho dairy owner Mike Roth says his operation is not polluting groundwater. Roth owns Si-Ellen Farms in Jerome, right in the heart of Idaho’s dairy country.

The dairy owner says making sure they protect groundwater is a core part of running a successful business – and is something his operation is already doing.  

“You have to be responsible, for your family and for your employees and for the environment," says Roth. "Because we’re the ones drinking out of the wells, we certainly wouldn’t want to contaminate our own family.”

Roth’s says his 93-year-old mother lives on the farm, and drinks the well water. The dairy has 100 employees and 7,000 cows – producing about 120 million gallons of milk a month.

Dairies, Nitrates And Well Water

The Roth family moved their business from Washington 20 years ago. They came for lower operating costs and an agriculture-friendly political climate. Roth says they’re doing a good job of policing themselves.

“The days of farmers just applying what they want and doing what they want – those people are going to weed themselves out.”

Roth is referencing a case in Washington state’s Yakima valley, where a group of dairies were sued over nitrate contamination in the groundwater, and later agreed to sweeping changes on how they handle waste.

That set a precedent that’s made Idaho dairies like Si-Ellen Farms nervous.

David Mezes is the man in charge of making sure environmental rules are followed at the dairy. On a tour on a hot summer day, he shouts over the industrial milking machinery. Fans are going full blast as cows are moved in and out of the facility.

“There’s 50 a side in there – there’s 100 cows at one time. The cows like it cooler than hotter," says Mezes. "And we even have a mister system, if it gets really hot they’ll spray a mister system.”  

Mezes constantly monitors the farm’s waste management practices, making sure the thousands of pounds of cow manure don’t sink into the aquifer. He says inspectors from the Idaho Department of Agriculture and the DEQ come by regularly to check on the operation.

“We fly drones over the fields and monitor water if it’s moving anywhere [or] the sprinkles are working correctly. I just got a new app on here for FarmLogic – you can record everything you do right on your phone, it comes into the computers and the girls can make printouts. It’s easier than it used to be.”

Credit Frankie Barnhill / Boise State Public Radio
Boise State Public Radio
Cows at the Si-Ellen Farms milking facility in Jerome. Dairy leaders contend that state and federal rules governing feedlots are already robust, and that the industry is doing what it can to protect Idaho drinking water.

To Rick Naerebout of the Idaho Dairy Association, farms like this one are the rule in Idaho – not the exception. Naerebout says the dairy association has raised money from its members to fund research about best practices.

“We’re not afraid of making sure we’re doing things right," says Naerebout. "We just feel like the day has come where maybe we don’t need continued focus like we’ve gained in 20 years; maybe it’s time to focus in other areas.”

Naerebout points out that unlike crop farmers, Idaho dairy producers are required to have a waste-management plan. He says the association last fall hired a soil specialist to work with farmers on how to manage animal waste and fertilizer.

And in some places, these efforts seem to be working. Between 2008 and 2014, the number of wells contaminated by nitrates decreased in some parts of the state.

But to Ed Hagan of the DEQ, a decreasing trend over six years is not enough to say the nitrate problem is going away. The state environmental agency began closely tracking nitrate levels in wells in 2001, and works with the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Water Resources to gather data. State law requires that the three agencies share the responsibility to monitor nitrates.

However, neither Hagan nor his colleagues at the Department of Agriculture will directly link the dairy industry to Idaho’s nitrate problem.

“I think there’s been a recognition since we’ve been doing these nitrate priority areas that there’s some problems," says Hagan. "And I think maybe the dairy industry’s improved their practices, maybe some of the ag-producers have improved their practices.”

Multi-Agency Monitoring: Helpful Or Harmful?

Justin Hayes of the Idaho Conservation League says state regulators are doing what they can to monitor dairies and groundwater, but that the state’s multi-agency approach is splintered and therefore not effective.  

“I think if Idaho was really serious about addressing this issue," Hayes says, "these authorities would be concentrated at the Department of Environmental Quality.”

However, Hayes is not expecting regulatory changes from the Idaho legislature. After all, this is a state where the controversial and now unconstitutional ag-gag law was easily passed in 2014. Instead, Hayes says the industry needs to invest even more in better waste-management practices – above and beyond what’s mandated by the government. Without these changes, Hayes paints a bleak future picture when it comes to clean water access for families in rural parts of the state.  

“Knowing that the water that’s coming out of the tap would be poisonous to children sounds pretty bad to me. And I think that’s of tremendous concern to people in rural Idaho.”  

Find Frankie Barnhill on Twitter @FABarnhill

Copyright 2016 Boise State Public Radio

Frankie Barnhill was the Senior Producer of Idaho Matters, Boise State Public Radio's daily show and podcast.