SACRAMENTO -- A Sacramento appeals court this week rejected the state's rules to protect underground water from tons of dairy cow waste suspected of fouling some drinking water in the San Joaquin Valley.
Activists who filed the lawsuit years ago say the victory will help set up a better system to protect rural residents from the waste of 1.6 million cows in the valley, the largest dairy region in the nation.
"Water quality regulators claim that better-than-nothing is good enough," said Laurel Firestone, attorney for the Community Water Center, representing community activists. "The court sent a message that this is no longer business as usual."
Dairy industry leaders said the ruling was on a procedural matter and would not affect long-term efforts to protect the environment.
"They're going to continue to protect water quality," said Michael Marsh, chief executive officer at Western United Dairymen in Modesto.
The water quality issue is closely watched in the valley, where milk is the top-grossing farm product. It brought an estimated $766 million in Stanislaus County, $453 million in San Joaquin County and $1.1 billion in Merced County last year, according to their agricultural commissioners.
Increased costs for water pollution prevention could further squeeze farmers already dealing with high feed costs.
The case has been sent back to a lower court, which is expected to require more detailed monitoring of 1,600 dairies. The state agency responsible for the monitoring is the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board.
The board on Thursday defended its rules as "a practical suite of solutions to protect groundwater from manure and other wastes."
The rules have such requirements as strictly tracking dairy wastes as well as managing the waste piles and ponds. For example, Marsh said, farmers test samples of feed crops irrigated from manure lagoons to assure that nitrogen is being taken up from the soil rather than seeping into groundwater.
The court found fault merely with how the board required dairies to demonstrate they were not harming the groundwater, the board said.
No immediate costs or impacts are expected for dairy owners while the court process continues.
Industry representatives said the court did not have the opportunity to hear about improvements that have been made since 2007.
Dairy families and their organizations have worked closely with water quality officials to comply with the regulations, said Bill Van Dam, chairman of Dairy CARES, a statewide coalition of dairies. The group entered the lawsuit on the side of the regional board.
Van Dam said millions of dollars and thousands of hours have been invested in the water regulations.
"That progress will continue," he said.
Valley activists in Asociación de Gente Unida por el Agua have battled the state rules for many years. Its membership includes people from Cutler, Orosi, Tooleville, Seville and several other small south valley communities where water is tainted by nitrates.
A University of California at Davis study released this year shows nitrates threaten the drinking water of about 250,000 people from Fresno to Bakersfield.
Nitrates come from sewage treatment plants, fertilizers, decaying plants and animal waste. The UC Davis study suggests much of the nitrate problem in the valley comes from decades of fertilizer use.
But dairies also are suspect, according to the study. Large dairies sometimes have several thousand head of cattle and produce a million pounds of manure a day.
Modesto Bee staff writer John Holland contributed to this report.