We’ve come to accept more government intrusion in our lives since the Sept. 11 tragedy a year and a half ago. In most cases, we go along with the changes for the sake of public safety.  

In one notable area — protection of the natural environment — government involvement goes back much further than that.  Environmental regulations have grown more burdensome ever since passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972.

Given these trends, many in the dairy industry feared the worst when the Environmental Protection Agency announced the final regulations governing livestock operations known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).

But, most observers were pleasantly surprised. The final regulations weren’t as tough as the ones proposed by the Clinton Administration at the end of 2000. Instead of being “unliveable,” as one observer noted, the new regulations appear to be “workable.”

Farms will not be required to do hydrological studies to determine what effect they have on the groundwater. That comes as a relief. The regulations proposed two years ago would have targeted those farms with a “hydrological connection” to the groundwater, and imposed some burdensome requirements on them, such as monitoring wells and double-lined lagoons. In the end, the EPA chose to continue to concentrate on surface waters rather than set precedent with establishing a groundwater connection.  

A farm isn’t defined as a CAFO unless it has 700 or more dairy cows or 1,000 or more heifers. Many had feared the definition would be more inclusive than that, perhaps affecting farms with as few as 350 cows.

And, the new regulations do not prohibit the spreading of manure on frozen ground, as originally proposed a couple of years ago.  

Make no mistake about it — the regulations will be a challenge.  Farms designated as CAFOs will be required to obtain a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit from their state permitting authority. They will be expected to be good stewards of the environment, as most farmers already are.

Do we really need the CAFO regulations?

Society wants some form of environmental protection. And, having these regulations is actually beneficial to dairy producers in the long run. They provide a framework for what is right and what is wrong, environmentally speaking. If a producer is in compliance with his permit, he can say that he has made a good-faith effort to protect the environment, following best-management practices. That should provide him with a court defense if a neighbor or citizen’s group ever sues him.

The final CAFO regulations could have been a lot worse. In retrospect, dairy producers benefited from the election of George W. Bush to the presidency in 2000 over Al Gore. The Bush Administration toned down the regulations significantly.

EPA appears to have listened to the concerns of the USDA and industry groups, such as the National Milk Producers Federation.

“National Milk worked hard to develop comments (on the proposed CAFO regulations), and it’s obvious that EPA listened to them,” says Carissa Itle Westrick, dairy environmental consultant to the NMPF.

For that we can be thankful.