Water testing to increase on dairies


A regional water board program that governs animal waste on roughly three-dozen dairies in the Bay Area, including 12 in West Marin, is up for renewal in June. Under proposed changes to the program, dairies would have to monitor water quality and create or update management plans for controlling waste and monitoring grazing lands.

The San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board approved its first waiver program for dairies in 2003, but the waivers expire every five years. The current program expired in 2008. 

“It’s an administrative thing that we didn’t get it done in a timely manner, but [dairies] were still complying with the requirements. We are still out there inspecting,” said Laurie Taul, an environmental scientist with the water board. 

Dairies are a critical component of Marin’s agricultural landscape. Milk is the most valuable agricultural product in the county; it accounted for over $33 million of the county’s gross agricultural production value in 2013, which reached about $84 million that year, according to a county report.

Regional boards around California implement and monitor state water regulations. For dairies, that typically occurs either through a waiver program or what is called a “waste discharge requirement.” (Beef cattle ranchers that graze their herds have been regulated under a different waiver program since 2008.) 

Waste discharge requirements cost dairies money—annual fees range from about $1,000 to over $13,000, depending on their size—and come with more stringent reporting requirements. A few dairies that have “operational or managerial problems” are under those protocols, Ms. Taul said. The waiver program, on the other hand, is an option for dairies that pose a lower risk to water quality. It does not currently involve a fee.

In one of the most significant changes in the proposed waiver, dairies would have to monitor surface waters and wells on their land, Ms. Taul said. 

Many dairies in the North Bay currently test water quality with the help of local farm bureaus, but that work was voluntary and not everyone participated. The water board has met with dairies monthly, getting reports of problems and how they were resolved, but didn’t receive official, regular test results. Under the terms of the renewed waiver program, Ms. Taul said, “They have the option of doing it on their own, on creeks around them, or [undertaking] a group monitoring effort.” 

Dairies must also create a plan for how they will spread manure or spray wastewater on the land; update waste management plans; and create grazing management plans, which largely focus on controlling erosion and making sure lands aren’t overgrazed.

Dominic Grossi, a former president of the Marin County Farm Bureau who has about 240 dairy cattle near Stafford Lake, said that creating new plans costs money. Some of the work, he said, is theoretically possible to do oneself, but some aspects require an engineer’s certification.

Some dairies already have those plans in place, but not all do. “I have ranch plan, but not a grazing or nutrient management plan,” Mr. Grossi said. He said he didn’t anticipate doing things differently; the big difference, he said, would come in writing plans to describe what he already does on his ranch. “We’re gonna do the same thing, it’s just gonna be documented. This is what it’s about; they want it documented.”

Mr. Grossi isn’t sure what the added costs of drafting new plans and testing water will add up to. And, though he doesn’t expect them to be substantial, he said the price of following rules and regulations from various agencies “adds up over time.” 


The public comment period on the proposed waiver program ends at 5 p.m. on May 1. Comments may be emailed to laurie.taul@waterboards.ca.gov or sent to Laurie Taul, San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board, 1515 Clay Street, Suite 1400, Oakland CA 94612. A hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. on June 10, in the first floor auditorium of the Elihu Harris State Building at 1515 Clay Street, in Oakland. The waiver can be accessed at waterboards.ca.gov/sanfranciscobay/board_decisions/tentative_orders.shtml.