RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Lots of milk containers picture cows grazing on a pasture next to a country barn and a silo, which is not how it really is for most cows. More and more milk comes from confined animal feeding operations, known as K-FOS(ph), where large herds live in feedlots, waiting their three daily trips to the milking barn. A factory farm with 2,000 cows produces as much sewage as a small city, yet that farm doesn't have a treatment plant.
Across the country, big dairies are coming under increased criticism for polluting the air and the water. NPR's John Burnett has our report on New Mexico's manure war.
JOHN BURNETT: It's the diary product they don't tell you about. Everyday, an average cow produces six to seven gallons of milk and 18 gallons of manure.
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BURNETT: New Mexico has 300,000 milk cows. So, that comes out to 5.4 million gallons of manure every day - enough to fill up nine Olympic-size pools every day. Welcome to the land of enchantment.
Manure management, as it's called, is the dairy industry's greatest environmental challenge. Farms dispose of it in two ways.
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BURNETT: First, workers hose off the muck off the concrete floor of a milking barn, and it flows into a plastic- or clay-lined lagoon where the liquid evaporates. Second, waste from the feedlot where the cows live is collected and used as fertilizer for grain crops.
But the New Mexico Environment Department reports that two-thirds of the state's 150 dairies are contaminating groundwater with excess nitrogen from cattle excrement. Marcy Leavitt, director of Water and Wastewater, says either the lagoons are leaking, or manure is being applied too heavily on farmland.
Ms. MARCY LEAVITT (Director, Water and Wastewater Division, New Mexico Environment Department): As we get more and more monitoring data, what we see is that more and more dairies have contamination underneath them. So, something isn't working about those facilities.
BURNETT: The problem is worsened by the tendency of large dairies to cluster together. On Dairy Row, for instance, along Interstate 10 between Las Cruces and El Paso, more than 30,000 cows live in 11 farms located one after the other. In the past four years, the EPA has repeatedly cited these dairies for violating the Clean Water Act, for letting manure-laced storm water wash into tributaries of the Rio Grande.
Community organizer Arturo Uribe says the dairies keep bigger and bigger, despite their proximity to his hometown of Mesquite.
Mr. ARTURO URIBE (Community Organizer): You hear it often in community meetings. People describe, like, maybe five, six, seven years ago they could go out in front of their home and enjoy the afternoon, have a tardeada, eat some food. But now what these folks are saying is when they go out there, there's too many flies.
BURNETT: Even more serious than odor and flies, is the threat to the watershed. In the town of Dexter, in southeastern New Mexico, a dozen residential homes are surrounded by sprawling dairies on three sides.
Mr. HERBIE RODRIGUEZ: We were told that we couldn't drink the water because it was, the water was contaminated ever since we had it.
Herbie Rodriguez sits in the front yard of his mobile home, littered with family detritus and shoos away the flies that are everywhere. He says his family has been buying five-gallon bottles of water to drink and cook with, but they still wash with contaminated well water.
Mr. RODRIGUEZ: On a white, brand-new T-shirt, you can wash it in the water -brand-new - it would come out, like, brownish, you know - beige. That's how you can tell how bad the water was.
BURNETT: There's no question among state regulators who's to blame for fouling the groundwater in Dexter, New Mexico. The water table is shallow in this part of the state and monitoring wells, down-gradient of the dairies, all clearly show excess nitrates. The dairies are now under state abatement plans to control manure runoff.
New Mexico's dairy industry denies the figure that two-thirds of its farms are polluting groundwater. Robert Hagevoort, a dairy extension agent and industry spokesman suggests critics are too quick to blame dairies.
Mr. ROBERT HAGEVOORT (Dairy Extension Agent): They may have a septic tank that's leaking. That is the number one reason why domestic wells in New Mexico are contaminated. With that, I'm not saying that there's not issues and we're not working on some of these dairies. Dairymen are very adamant about being a good steward to the environment. They want to make sure that their families that live on these dairies can drink that water, can bathe in that water and their animals are healthy as well.
BURNETT: No one wants to drive the milk cows out of New Mexico. Dairies contribute an estimated billion dollars to the economy in a poor state with little private industry. Even Herbie Rodriguez, whose well water is contaminated, works at a dairy.
But after decades of acceptance, there's a sense here in the state that the dairies' free ride is over. New Mexico is in the process of rewriting and tightening regulations for dairy discharge permits. This year � for the first time ever � the state rejected a proposed dairy in the town of Caballo after citizens protested that it would pollute the Rio Grande watershed.
Face with growing resistance, the industry has taken to the airwaves.
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Unidentified Man: (Singing) Working for you, dairy farmers from your hometown.
BURNETT: Pro-dairy billboards have sprouted around the state. One of them shows a family watching cows graze on green pastures. I took a photo of that billboard and showed it to Jana Hughes. Her family lives next to a dairy near Hobbs. When nitrate levels in their water started creeping up, Hughes formed a group called Citizens for Dairy Reform.
What's your reaction to that billboard?
Ms. JANA HUGHES (Citizens for Dairy Reform): False advertisement. I mean, as someone who lives around dairies and knows dairies, that is not how it is. We're talking 2,000 cows confined in a small area, living in their own feces and urine.
BURNETT: John Woelber knows dairy farms are a nuisance. That's why he built his $5 million, 2,300-cow operation in remote high desert in Valencia County, 10 miles from his nearest neighbor.
Mr. JOHN WOELBER (Dairy Farmer): The reason we're out here in the middle of nowhere is so we have no complaints, we have no neighbors that will come up and say, you've got too many flies or it smells. But that's why you live someplace where people don't want to move and the cows can live her comfortably and things work pretty well.
BURNETT: The trend in dairies, like the rest of commodity agriculture, is toward fewer and larger farms, which concentrates more manure in smaller geographic areas. Citizens are reporting dairies contaminating ground and surface water across the nation - in the Yakima Valley, Washington; Brown County, Wisconsin; Hudson, Michigan; and now Dexter, New Mexico.
In many places, the powerful dairy lobby blocks tough state regulations, and on the federal level, the EPA lacks broad powers to crack down on agricultural runoff. But in New Mexico, the winds might have begun to shift.
John Burnett, NPR News.
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MONTAGNE: Tomorrow morning, we'll hear about one man's crusade to put cows back on grass and bring the flavor back to milk. And later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, we'll hit the elementary school lunch line. In some cafeterias, chocolate milk is a thing of the past.
Unidentified Child: No one is going to get regular milk if we have chocolate milk, 'cause I think they're going to like it better 'cause it tastes better. But it's not good for you, so I think we shouldn't have chocolate milk.
MONTAGNE: The battle over chocolate milk this afternoon.
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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.