Cow Manure Pollution

In this March 11, 2009, file photo, a line of Holstein dairy cows feed through a fence at a dairy farm outside Jerome, Idaho.

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Gov. Brad Little has signed into law two bills sought by Idaho’s dairy industry to ease regulations on the copious amounts of manure the state’s hundreds of thousands of cows produce each day, but expressed concerns in a signing letter that the combination of the two bills may push things too far – landing Idaho’s Department of Agriculture rules on manure management in court. That raises the possibility, he warned, of “federal judges subjecting dairies to onerous federal environmental regulations not previously used to regulate the industry.”

HB 167 requires state officials to consider economic ramifications when imposing pollution regulations on farms and ranches producing manure to protect nearby communities and the environment from pollution. It follows an unsuccessful attempt by ag groups to weaken current standards involving the amount of cow manure that can be put on fields, the AP previously reported. The Idaho State Department of Agriculture declined to weaken those standards, citing scientific research that sets best practices for pollution control.

SB 167’s Statement of Purpose says, “The intent is to ensure that imposition of rules dictated by scientific possibilities are balanced against economic reality such that regulatory burdens are financially attainable by farms and ranches.”

South-central Idaho, where most of the state’s dairies are located, is home to about 425,000 dairy cows that produce an estimated 50 million pounds of cow manure per day, the AP reports. Overall, Idaho has about 600,000 cows. The Snake River flows through the area, and is polluted with phosphorous and nitrogen, which are byproducts of cow waste, and also by human waste from sewage systems.

Little, in his signing letter issued Tuesday, wrote, “I agree with the agricultural industry that the economic costs of regulation should be given appropriate consideration during the agency rulemaking process. However, this bill, combined with HB 51, could put the industry under increased scrutiny.”

HB 51, which Little signed into law last week, extends a dual standard for phosphorus released by dairies that has been in place since 2017 and was scheduled to expire on July 1, 2023; the bill would make the dual standard permanent. It allows dairy producers to choose between a phosphorous threshold standard or a phosphorous indexing standard in monitoring the land application of manure, which is applied to fields as a fertilizer for crops.

HB 51 passed the House 61-9 and the Senate 31-4; HB 167 passed the House 57-10 and the Senate 27-7.

Little, a rancher himself, wrote, “I believe the state should govern with the lightest hand possible, and in that vein, I support both HB 167 and HB 51. However, I do have concerns that these pieces of legislation may increase the likelihood of agency rules being challenged in court. … We already have seen the new administration is unlikely to share Idaho’s vision for limited government and realistic regulation. I urge caution.”

Both bills take effect July 1.

HB 167 states, “For purposes of this subsection, ‘economically feasible’ means that the requirements, when viewed singularly and cumulatively with other requirements, and the costs and burden of implementation of the same, on agricultural operations are reasonably achievable and attainable within the physical, operational, economic, and other constraints that affect such agricultural operations and their local communities. The highest cost or most modern management practices should not be the sole basis for rulemaking.”

Both bills were backed by the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, the Idaho Cattle Association, J.R. Simplot Co. and other agricultural groups.

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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