If the water tastes bad, blame the cows…

Once again the city of Waco has turned dairy cows into scapegoats for its most recent drinking water woes. That’s convenient, but not always accurate. Unfortunately, the Waco Tribune-Herald recently printed a story solely based on this opinion from the city’s water quality official, without independent verification or additional reporting.

It’s no surprise that the city continues to accuse dairies. After all, it must justify several million dollars of taxpayer money it has spent - and continues to spend - on high-priced lawyers and other legal maneuvers in its war against the dairies. First, it sued to drive a group of dairies out of business; now it is fighting state permit applications that, ironically, would require dairies to adhere to more stringent environmental standards.

At the same time, the city apparently is in denial that its own sewage and landfill discharges impact local water quality. A highly touted, city-supported 2005 water quality report found that sewage was the primary contributor of bacteria in Lake Waco near the dam.

An independent review of public records reveals that, for more than six years, the city of Waco has had a very significant problem with sewage system overflows, many of which have drained or discharged into Lake Waco. At times, sewage pumps have become totally submerged. Some discharges dumped millions of gallons of sewage into the water supply.

These discharges have gone mostly unnoticed by the public and the media.

Are dairies to blame for most recent about taste and odor problems? The city said yes, and its charge went unchallenged. A closer look would have found:

• No farm liquid waste runoff lagoons or other retention structures reported overflows following recent watershed rains, as required, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. 

• While upstream rains did raise water depth and flow levels on the North Bosque River, they did not spike until days later than July 30, the date the city of Waco says drinking water taste and odor problems began, according to readings taken along the river at Valley Mills by the U.S. Geological Survey. The timing simply does not match.

The city also says the taste and odor this time are different from in the past, and a different species of blue-green algae is suspected. Could that point to a new cause?

Wacoans have suffered from foul drinking water episodes long before dairies began expanding in the upstream watershed in the late 1990s.

“As early as 1967, taste and odor problems associated with algal blooms were an issue within Lake Waco,” according to a report by Texas Institute for Applied Environmental Research (TIAER).

Dairies in the Bosque watershed are on the decline. Since 2000, 40 percent of the dairies operating in Erath County, the watershed’s primary dairy county, have gone out of business.

Meanwhile, TMDL monitoring stations have indicated nutrient levels in the North Bosque have decreased markedly, both as dairies have declined and as those remaining have implemented more stringent requirements to prevent runoff. Enhanced controls also have been placed on upstream water treatment plants.

Watershed dairies continue to apply for required permits that dictate how farms use and dispose of water and manure in order to protect ground and surface water. The regulations are the strictest in the state, for any type of agriculture facility. Violations bring harsh penalties. The City of Waco should stop spending taxpayer resources to delay or defeat these permits. And it should get its own house in order when it comes to water treatment.

John Cowan is the executive director of the Texas Association of Dairymen, Inc. (www.milk4texas.org).