Environmental groups have sued two Inland dairies, alleging they improperly manage cow manure that ends up polluting the Santa Ana River, a key drinking water supply for Orange County.

The lawsuits, citing violations of the federal Clean Water Act, were filed last week in U.S. District Court in Riverside against Vander Laan Dairy in unincorporated San Bernardino County and the Desperado Dairy, formerly Vander Poel Dairy, in Riveride County near Corona.

Both dairies are located near a creek that feeds the Santa Ana River. They are among about 300 dairies in southwest San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and Defend the Bay contend that the dairies discharge manure-polluted water from holding ponds and stockpile manure in dairy corrals.

The environmental groups said the lawsuits were filed on behalf of those who live downstream in Orange County and whose health is threatened by the salts and nitrates from the manure.

John Vander Poel denied the allegations. He said the manure piles are trucked daily to the family's dairy in Central California. The only time there was runoff that spilled into nearby Cucamonga Creek, he said, was when a rodent dug a tunnel into his waste pond.

"It's downright sickening," he said of the lawsuits. "And they're not going to leave us alone."

The lawsuit against the Vander Laan Dairy cites records showing repeated violations that also sparked a felony lawsuit.

A telephone message left at the Vander Laan Dairy was not immediately returned.

The lawsuit, citing Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board files, says that state inspectors found 19 violations over a 25-year period at the dairy.

In addition, the San Bernardino County district attorney's office filed a felony case against dairy owner Ben Vander Laan in 1994 alleging an unlawful discharge of a pollutant into Cucamonga Creek. Vander Laan settled the lawsuit the next year by paying $15,000 to the district attorney's environmental trust fund.

Kurt Berchtold, assistant executive officer for the regional water quality control board, said dairies are a high priority for the state agency. Currently, he said, all dairies are required to come up with plans to detail what features, such as dikes, will be installed to contain wastewater.

The dairy problem "has a long-term potential to adversely affect Orange County," said Mike Wehner, Orange County Water District's associate general manager. The district sinks water from the river into groundwater basins, then pumps it out to serve some 2 million people. The district built wetlands, which naturally filter out some pollutants, behind Prado Dam near Corona. Wehner said the agency is considering building some near Mill Creek, where many dairies are believed to send their waste.

Press-Enterprise, Riverside Calif.