December 22, 2021
Whatcom farmers face manure management challenges after flooding
Lauren Gallup

A manure lagoon near Lynden sits adjacent to where a dike along the Nooksack River failed during flooding in November. (Photo courtesy Washington State Department of Agriculture)

December 22, 2021
Whatcom farmers face manure management challenges after flooding
Lauren Gallup

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The massive amount of rain that fell over Whatcom and Skagit in November put major stress on county dairies. Some lost animals in the floods, some lost milk with trucks unable to collect and now there’s another hurdle: Where can they store all that manure?

From September to late November, noted Fred Likkel of Whatcom Family Farmers, a farming education and advocacy organization, about six months’ worth of moisture fell in three months. A lot of this rain collected in dairy lagoons — the open tanks where farmers store manure during the winter. 

“It puts a stress on the amount of liquid that ends up getting collected, because farms don’t just collect exclusively manure, they also collect wastewater that comes along with it,” Likkel said.

Farmers have to store manure from their animals during the colder months, roughly the middle of October to the middle of March, as the ground isn’t warm enough to absorb the nutrients into the soil. An online manure-spreading advisory map shows farmers when the risk of spreading manure is too high at any given time.

Each year, farmers plan for the storage capacity they will need during the winter. Calculations are based on the number of cows they have, how much manure they’ll produce and how much rainfall they can anticipate, explained Bill Blake of the Skagit Conservation District. Some lagoons store liquids and solids separately, others are combined.

‘Manure is money’

Storing the manure is a benefit to farmers.

“Manure is money,” Blake said. Once the soil warms up enough for biological activity to occur, farmers can begin applying manure to fertilize their soil and help them grow grass to feed to their cows.

Corina Cheever, farm planning team coordinator with the Whatcom Conservation District, said the nutrient management plans that dairies are responsible for take into account climate information from the closest weather station, planning for a typical year with a built-in buffer.

But this was no typical season.

“You can’t anticipate what has happened,” Cheever said.

These big, open tanks, collecting freshwater, manure and wastewater, were basins for collection during our recent storms.

Now many farms are dealing with the concern of overtopping lagoons — which, beyond affecting farming operations, could cause downstream pollution problems.

Likkel said the concern now is that with months ahead of wetter weather and necessary manure storage, lagoons already nearing capacity can’t take on what’s is expected to come.

All-out efforts

The Whatcom farming community including partner organizations has mobilized to acquire funding for farms to pump out the excess water and manure into spare lagoons, in an effort to keep farmers farming and keep the manure out of the water system.

“They’ve been working very hard at being proactive on this. It has not been an easy situation at all,” Likkel said. “But I am impressed with how resilient they are and how willing they are to proactively deal with the issues.”

The Skagit Conservation District has been working to get funding to farmers for the costly task of pumping out lagoons as well, Blake said. The district has been reaching out to each farmer to see what their individual needs are. In doing this, Blake said they’re also taking the opportunity to proactively inspect lagoons to ensure there are no pending failures.

The Washington State Department of Health (DOH) is distributing funding through the Conservation Commission from grants issued by the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Estuary Program.

DOH public information officer Ginny Streeter said she couldn’t yet identify all the many agencies working with the department to secure funding yet, as the process is ongoing. 

Likkel said that farmers can request financial assistance for extra storage, through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

Risks for shellfish harvest

Locally, farmers have to be particularly cautious to not let lagoons overtop because of the shellfish beds downstream.

“Lummi Nation is the primary operator of the shellfish-growing area in Portage Bay. That’s the receiving waters, and [pollution] can really interrupt their ability to harvest shellfish,” said Doug Allen, manager of the Washington State Department of Ecology’s Bellingham field office.

Portage Bay was among six shellfish growing areas closed from mid-November through mid-December, all due to flooding or excessive rainfall, Streeter said via email. 

The Washington State Department of Agriculture maintains online updates on surface water quality levels for fecal coliform. Too much fecal bacteria indicates the likelihood of disease-causing germs or parasites.

“It doesn’t take much when you have that much flood … even if you don’t have a high concentration, it can still be a problem,” Allen said.

Getting through the emergency

During this emergency, Allen said agencies are using discretion in enforcement for any pollution. 

“We’re trying to work with people right now to get through the emergency,” he said.

Ecology has given a $20,000 grant to the Whatcom Conservation District to assist farmers with getting extra storage, said spokesperson Curt Hart.

Cheever noted this funding is specifically to pump lagoons that are either full or will fill before March, and re-emphasized the historic amounts of rainfall. “We’re three months ahead of what we historically see. A lot of these storage facilities are above what we want them to be at this time.”

Cheever said the district is communicating with Ecology about getting another $50,000 and working with the Washington State Conservation Commission and the National Estuary Program to receive an additional $100,000.

But this funding still wouldn’t be enough. Cheever said they’re estimating the total costs to move the manure at $600,000. This is with about 40% of active dairies in the county having storage concerns in the next month but potentially more could have concerns later. 

Dollars and stress

It can cost farms up to $10,000 on the low end to pump, Cheever said; an unexpected cost impossible to plan for. Dairies can’t just stop functioning when an emergency like this happens.

“They’ve still got their animals and they’re still producing milk, and they’re still feeding them, and they’re still producing manure — that’s not changing with this added pressure of the storm event,” said Aneka Sweeney, education and outreach coordinator with the Whatcom Conservation District.

During the flooding, some dairies lost money having to dump milk when trucks were unable pick product up to sell, Sweeney said. In addition, stress can make cows produce less milk, further reducing a farmer’s profits, Cheever added.

Farmers affected by the November flood events can report the damages to Whatcom County Division of Emergency Management.

The total impact on public infrastructure, businesses and private property of recent flooding was estimated to be at $50 million, according to a Dec. 3 press release from the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office.

Beyond this winter, there will still be impacts to local dairies from the flooding, many unforeseen, Sweeney said. Cheever said that fields underwater are now covered in sediment and will have to be reseeded. Other structural damages to fence lines, bridges and culverts will also have to be addressed.

While the flooding in Whatcom and Skagit counties in November was unprecedented, rainier winters might be in store for the area with climate change.

“Farmers recognize climate change as much as anybody else does, and recognize the whole idea of wetter winters and drier summers,” Likkel said.

In the face of those trends, winter storage considerations for manure may need to adapt to accommodate more precipitation.

Reporting by Lauren Gallup

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