A flood of manure and how to stop it

How we worked to relocate “manure lagoons” and protect public health during recent flooding

What do you do if 30 million gallons of liquid manure threatens public health? When heavy rains came late last year, a battalion of truck drivers, farmers, local officials, and state agency workers got to work. Their mission: To protect water systems, shellfish farms, and people from potentially bacteria-laden floods from manure lagoons.

Cows stand in a flooded field
Cows and floods can be a polluted mix in Washington state. The Department of Health recently provided funding from EPA which helped avoid catastrophe when heavy rains hit dairies in Whatcom and Skagit counties.

It was a very dangerous threat to public health that required multiple state and local agencies to work together. And, farmers in Skagit and Whatcom counties needed to work to transfer millions of gallons of liquid manure to safer storage.

Many dairy farmers across the state keep manure lagoons — big pools of cow manure — over fall and winter. They store the nutrient-rich resource so they can use it as fertilizer when the weather warms and the fields are drier and ready for its benefits.

Downstream from the lagoons are people and an environment at serious risk if flooding occurs. Sometimes that includes shellfish farms.

Heavy rain and possible toxic flooding

In late 2021, back-to-back storms dumped hundreds of millions of gallons of water on Western Washington in just a few days. In northwest Washington, the rain hit Whatcom and Skagit counties especially hard, with intense, widespread flooding. In only two weeks, almost three months’ worth of rain fell in the area. Sewage spilled from a wastewater treatment plant. Officials closed three shellfish harvest areas because of flooding along the Nooksack River. Much of the rainy season still lay ahead.

Many of the manure lagoons are open to the elements. Structures that store manure collected more than 97 million gallons of rain in addition to cattle waste. Some were nearing total capacity early in the rainy season, said the Whatcom Conservation District.

This meant a serious public health hazard.

“The liquid — which was full of bacteria — was at risk of flooding into nearby streams, putting public health at risk,” said Clara Hard with DOH. “Also, that water flows into Puget Sound, which would have devastating effects on water quality and the safety of eating shellfish from the area.”

The solution: Move the manure

We got to work quickly with partners — the state Department of Ecology, the Conservation Commission, and local officials. Our goal was to help farmers whose manure storage facilities were at risk of overflowing.

First, the Whatcom and Skagit Conservation Districts (CDs) tried to contact every dairy farmer in the area to measure the threat from flooded lagoons.

  • The Whatcom CD found at least 19 livestock owners who needed to move 26.5 million gallons of manure to safe storage.
  • The Skagit CD found 5 farms with almost 4 million gallons.

What does moving 30 million gallons of liquid manure look like, you ask?

Farmers used existing buried manure lines that connect farms to move most of the manure. But some also relied on trucking.

Bill Blake of the Skagit CD said their contractor used 9,000-gallon trucks. They’re about 42 feet long. To transport 30 million gallons would take about 3,333 tanker trucks, like the kind that deliver gasoline to stations.

Put them end to end and the convoy of manure-filled trucks would stretch about 26.5 miles.

Some farmers used their own trucks. Others used contractors, such as Pacific Plumbing.

Partners working together

“The Washington State Department of Health reached out immediately once our disaster relief need was identified,” said Corina Cheever, conservation planning coordinator at the Whatcom Conservation District. They worked quickly to secure funds to address the issue our local dairies were facing. We are thankful for their streamlined support and follow up.”

The cost of moving the manure was about $360,000. Thanks to the work of many people across diverse agencies, and funding in part from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency through the National Estuary Program’s Shellfish Strategic Initiative, we were able to move 30 million gallons of manure. We also supported more than 30 farms to help protect the environment from potential catastrophe.

The liquid was moved to other farms. All of it stayed in the county in which it was created. Those farmers “were happy to get those nutrients” to use on their fields this year, said Aneka Sweeney of the Whatcom CD.

Recent rains continue to threaten water quality in Western Washington. We continue to work to keep people in Washington safe from disease when flooding and other incidents occur.




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