CAFO Permit Background and Analysis

The Washington State Department of Ecology is updating the latest Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) permit. There are some farms that either need the permit (if they have had discharges to surface waters) or want the permit (for possible protection against third-party lawsuits).

But the permit requirements need to be changed significantly, even for those who want it.

Ecology insists most or all lagoons potentially leak some small amount of “waste” into groundwater. Therefore, Ecology wants to require most farms with more than 200 mature dairy animals to apply for this CAFO permit if those livestock farms have a lagoon lined with clay, or soil or single poly liners (even if built to NRCS standards).

There are two public hearings and a webinar scheduled, and we will be working to set up additional kitchen meetings in early August to hopefully get Ecology staff out to talk with more farms and hear your concerns.

We have tried through innumerable meetings to help Ecology understand the impacts of their presumptions and the consequences of the terms and conditions in this permit. They have listened to some concerns but the current draft permit seriously undermines the ability of many farms to remain in the business. Our concerns are based on:

  1. What is written in the draft.
  2. An initial technical and economic impact review by Federation staff and board, farmers, consultants and various experts (as compared to the incomplete, inaccurate economic analysis supplied by Ecology).
  3. Ecology’s belief that it can require virtually all dairy farms in the state to apply and comply.

We are gravely concerned about the massive compliance costs of this permit and the staggering fiscal impact it will have on most farms across the state.

Several producers have asked for a summary of how this permit can impact your farm and a listing of our suggested alternatives that must be considered by Ecology to eliminate or minimize unacceptable or illogical impacts.

If you own or control more than 200 mature head and own at least one soil-lined lagoon, the permit would require you to apply for permit coverage. Additional concerns include the following:

  1. Permit conditions prohibit applications of “…manure, litter, or process wastewater, and other sources of nutrients…” to buffer zone and setbacks. The current draft says that either a 100 foot no-application zone or a 35-foot vegetative buffer (no touch) with no alternatives outlined in permit (see page 27, S4.N). The lost production capacity of those lands was not accounted for AT ALL in the Economic Impact Analysis (EIA) (see page 8 of EIA). We estimate lost production of at least $1200/acre for corn in Western Washington, for example, and at least $1850/acre for corn/triticale rotation ground in Eastern Washington. The Economic Impact Analysis mistakenly assumes fertilizer application is allowed in buffers (see page 8, Section 2.7 of EIA) while the permit language (page 27) prohibits application of fertilizer (as does organic rules on organic production based farms). For example, the estimated costs to a 300-acre west side farm with 10% loss (corn) due to buffers from any waters of the state* equals $36,000/year. The estimated costs to a 1000 acre eastern Washington farm with 10% land buffer losses (corn/triticale rotation) equals $185,000/year.
  2. Additional cost of much more frequent soil testing and depth of testing is again misrepresented, and actual test cost cited is wrong in the EIA. Furthermore, several experts question if there is any useful value in testing every field, every year in the spring. Estimated additional testing depends on number of fields but add $80-$250/field/year.
  3. Development of a new Manure Pollution Prevention Plan (MPPP), monitoring, recording, recordkeeping, and reporting costs were also dismissed in the EIA. Every farm will be different but there are many new requirements for recording and reporting that are not required in WSDA Dairy Nutrient Management Act inspections (see pages 29-37 of CAFO Draft). The administrative costs to monitor, record, maintain and report those records and reports were discounted in the EIA (see page 10 section 2.10) so no assessment of economic cost analysis was done on the added cost of changes. Our estimated added administrative cost – $5,000-$40,000 per year/farm.
  4. Lagoon assessment costs were estimated in the EIA but Ecology incorrectly assumed all farms have one lagoon. We believe it also may have under reported the per lagoon costs. Minimum best guess lagoon report estimate is $7400/lagoon and we don’t even know if it is possible to have an engineer do the report as dictated in draft permit.
  5. Additional storage requirements – Many producers have told us the changes in “allowable” spreading dates and conditions, as well as requirement to divert silage and potentially roof run-off water to lagoons, will result in many farms needing additional storage. Additional storage was not assessed in EIA due to erroneous and inaccurate assumptions in EIA (page 10 Section 2.9). (Concrete storage tanks have been running $500k/2-3 million gallons.)

The permit, a new agency and a new set of rules (and after massive investments by dairy farms in farm plans over the past 20 years by farmers and conservation districts) creates immense uncertainty.

(*For example there is no certainty in knowing where buffers start. Ecology’s definition for “waters of the state” is different from the USDA NRCS definition for “waters of the US” (WOTUS). We have been given no assurances that these differences between federal and state law will be resolved, despite repeated requests for clarity to Ecology over the past 15 years. So, the same piece of land, for example a “farmed wetland” designated as “prior converted” and therefore not WOTUS by NRCS, can be interpreted by Ecology under state law as “waters of the state” and therefore would need a buffer and no application of nutrients.)

Why were we told that NRCS lagoons were acceptable (and Ecology was consulted and concurred with NRCS lagoon standards in the 1990’s and early 2000’s), and now those very lagoons are unacceptable and grounds for a discharge permit?

Where is there a problem that can be identified and the solution measured? A recent study in California estimates lagoons may potentially be the source of one tenth of one percent of groundwater nitrate in central California. See page 3 of executive summary of

Why is Ecology focusing on the one tenth of one percent of nitrate sources?

Ironically, dairy farmers are one of the few groups that are focusing and being regulated already on nitrates. Last week, the Washington State Department of Agriculture reported excellent progress by dairy farms in improved compliance with the Dairy Nutrient Management Act and already very low levels of field specific levels of nitrates on dairy farms were drastically reduced. (See pages 8 and 9 of

This report alone begs the question as to what problem we are trying to solve by requiring hundreds of dairy farms to get permits, at the costs of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars per farm or pushing farms out of business for no good reason.