Lagoon spill

Resident raises questions about the handling of farm waste

I am responding to your Feb. 22 article entitled Manure lagoon spill generates anxiety.

Part of the problem, as I see it, is that the lead agency is the Ministry of Environment, which lacks, through no fault of its own, the tools to do the job. Certainly, substantial environmental concerns are involved, so it should be a player as should Interior Health because of the danger to human health caused by formerly clean wells that have become unfit sources of drinking water.

I think the lead agency should be the Ministry of Agriculture because it has the agronomists, soil scientists and hydrologists (or should have) who have the expertise needed to solve the problem.

What is needed is factual information. What is not needed is political knee-jerks and propaganda by the party in power or parties wishing to be in power this close to an election.

Here’s the problem, in a nutshell, as I see it. First and foremost, dairy farming has changed radically over the past several decades.

Cows no longer spend the bulk of their time outdoors, chewing their cud in bucolic pastures and just brought in for milking and then returned to pasture. They are now kept confined in large barns with cement floors so that means every pee and poo needs to be collected and stored until it can be disposed of. That creates the gist of the problem.

It has nothing to do with traditional solid manure. It’s about liquid manure, a completely different byproduct far more noxious than traditional solid manure and very much more difficult to dispose of such that “No harm is knowingly done.”

Another basic problem is that the number of dairy cows per given farm size has increased substantially. That means copious quantities of liquid manure is being produced.

It’s expensive to build storage facilities to hold it all and because authorities have not mandated that to happen, dairy farmers, being as human as the rest of us, sometimes find themselves with overflowing poop soups.

The solution (pun intended) is obvious, just require X amount of storage per cow but, therein, lies the rub. No one knows what an appropriate amount should be given our North Okanagan soils and climate.

Quite simply, the research has not, to my knowledge, been done. Neither do we know what proper application rates or frequencies should be. So what happens is everyone goes by guess and by gosh and hopes for the best.

But, as events have shown, the best does not always happen.

For want of proper guidelines, farmers are left to their own devices and, not surprisingly, sometimes too much liquid manure is applied or it applied too frequently. Both lead to undesirable outcomes, either too much runoff or too much percolating down into the groundwater table or, perhaps, even both occurring simultaneously.

If the runoff ends up in a fish bearing stream, the ammonia in it can be a fish killer. If it perks down to the water table the ammonia can transform into nitrates and that’s not good either.

Obviously, guidelines are needed, based upon proper research regarding how far away from a fish bearing stream it is safe to apply X amount and y frequency of liquid manure.

Equally obviously, liquid manure should never, ever be applied over or in close proximity to a groundwater aquifer being used as a drinking water source. I believe modern parlance calls that the precautionary principle. My nana or your toddler, God bless them, would say, “Don’t be stupid.”

Are all the politicos charging around looking for photo-ops or spouting gratuitous sound b-tes in our pre-election frenzy going to make things better. Well, I for one, don’t think so. I hope you think that too.

What might help, however, is to assign the responsibility to a ministry equipped to do the basic research needed before an intelligent resolution of the problem can happen.

Jim Bodkin