Federal Water Tap, July 8: Feds Sue Washington State Dairies over Nitrate Pollution

The Rundown

  • Justice Department files lawsuit against Yakima Valley dairies for polluting groundwater.
  • EPA publishes new maps of water system boundaries.
  • Reclamation finalizes plan to protect Colorado River fish from non-native predators.
  • House committee considers a budget bill that would cut EPA funding by 20 percent.
  • Reclamation assesses a Colorado River water conservation plan from the river’s biggest water user.

And lastly, the EPA releases a report on how a warming planet is changing the country’s land, air, and water.

“People who live near these dairies are at risk. It is critical that the dairies follow through on what they promised to do to protect their neighbors. The work remains unfinished and the contamination persists.” — Ed Kowalski, director of EPA Region 10’s Enforcement and Compliance Assurance Division, in a statement regarding a lawsuit against dairies in Washington state’s Yakima Valley for polluting groundwater with nitrate.

By the Numbers

15: Days the snowpack season decreased on average in the western states, from 1982 to 2023. The figure is part of an EPA report on climate change indicators in the United States. Warmer temperatures have also shifted the timing of streamflow peaks, especially in the Pacific Northwest and New England states. Many sites are peaking 10 or more days earlier.

News Briefs

Nitrate Lawsuit
The Justice Department sued dairies and property owners in Washington state’s Yakima Valley for continuing to pollute groundwater with nitrate at levels that endanger the health of area residents.

Fourteen dairy operations or people who own property where manure is spread are named in the lawsuit. The legal action seeks to compel the dairies to reduce nitrate pollution from their operations, which each house thousands of cows that produce tens of millions of gallons of liquid manure and hundreds of thousands of tons of solid waste annually. The lawsuit also proposes financial penalties, groundwater monitoring, and providing clean drinking water to homes with nitrate levels that exceed the federal drinking water standard.

Stored in lagoons and spread on fields, these animal wastes contain nitrogen that seeps into shallow groundwater that is used as a drinking water source by homes with private wells. Water with high concentrations of nitrate can be deadly to infants. Recent research has connected lower levels of nitrate with a risk of certain cancers and babies born prematurely.

The EPA first took action against some of these dairies in 2013, after the agency found nitrate levels in household wells in the Yakima Valley above the federal drinking water standard. The lawsuit alleges that the dairies failed to stop polluting and that nitrate “hot spots” persist near farm fields and manure lagoons.

The lawsuit represents a strengthening federal response to nitrate pollution from farm fields. Last year the EPA restarted a human health assessment of nitrate. The agency also ordered Minnesota regulators to protect residents from nitrate-contaminated water and to exercise stricter oversight of manure management at livestock operations in the state’s southeastern region.

In context: U.S. Regulators Order Minnesota to Clean Up Nitrate Contaminated Water

Colorado River Fish Management
The Bureau of Reclamation finalized a plan to protect native fish in the Colorado River from predatory non-native fish.

The plan centers on releasing cold water from Glen Canyon Dam. Native fish like the threatened humpback chub enjoy the brrrr. Interlopers like the smallmouth bass, which eat the chub, do not. Cold water released from Glen Canyon is meant to disrupt smallmouth bass from spawning downstream, where the chub reside. The recent decline of Lake Powell, which forms behind the dam, has increased the threat from smallmouth bass.

The plan is not gathering dust. Reclamation announced it would make the first cold water releases on July 9.

Studies and Reports

Colorado River Water Conservation Agreement
Imperial Irrigation District, the largest water user in the Colorado River basin, has agreed to reduce its use of Colorado River water by up to 300,000 acre-feet annually through 2026 and keep the conserved water in Lake Mead.

The Bureau of Reclamation assessed the environmental impacts of the proposal. IID would achieve the savings by three methods: fallowing farmland, irrigating less than normal, and more efficient irrigation. The latter gains would come from drip irrigation, runoff recycling, or field leveling.

Public comments are being accepted through July 28. Send them to prj-lcr-nepa@usbr.gov.

Water System Boundaries
The EPA released new data that shows the geographical area supplied by a particular community water system. There are some 44,000 service areas in the data, representing 99 percent of the population that receives water from a community system.

A water system map derived from the data is searchable by ZIP code. Enter five digits and you’ll see the water provider for that area.

EPA staff will join a webinar on July 9 to discuss the data and its uses. The webinar is hosted by the Environmental Policy Innovation Center. Register here

On the Radar

Budget Bill Markup
On July 9, the House Appropriations Committee will vote on fiscal year 2025 budget bills for a number of water-related agencies: Interior, EPA, Army Corps, and Energy.

The draft bill would cut the EPA budget by 20 percent and reduce funding to water and wastewater infrastructure.

Columbia River Treaty Hearing
On July 10, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will receive a classified briefing on talks to update the Columbia River Treaty.

Governing the operation of Columbia River dams and their power and flood control benefits, the treaty between the U.S. and Canada is being renegotiated to include ecosystem and climate considerations.

Climate Resilience Meeting
On July 11, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology will hold a meeting, in part to discuss climate resilience research. The meeting will be webcast and is open to the public. Here’s the agenda.

Federal Water Tap is a weekly digest spotting trends in U.S. government water policy. To get more water news, follow Circle of Blue on Twitter and sign up for our newsletter.

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