Feds help fund Hickman dairy fixes to keep water clean

jholland@modbee.comJuly 31, 2013 

    alternate textJohn Holland
    Title: Staff writer
    Coverage areas: Agriculture, Turlock; local news editor on Sundays
    Bio: John Holland has been a reporter at The Bee for 12 years. He has a journalism degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and previously worked at the Union Democrat in Sonora and the Visalia Times-Delta.
    Recent stories written by John
    Email: jholland@modbee.com

— Antonio Alberto and his family have a nice view on their dairy farm, which sits on a bluff about 70 feet high near the Tuolumne River.

With that comes a challenge — ensuring that the manure from their cows on the hilltop does not reach the river below.

This topography, unusual in a region where most dairy farms are on flat ground, helped Alberto qualify for a federal program that seeks to prevent water pollution.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service provided $231,000 over two years, covering roughly half the cost of improvements to manure and water handling. Among them are leveling some of the acreage for more efficient irrigation of feed crops, and recirculating water that otherwise could run off the fields.

"The primary part is water quality, and the second part is water conservation," said Jonathan Groveman, a public affairs specialist for the agency, during a tour of the farm last week.

Dairies, the top-grossing farm sector in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, produce a heck of a lot of manure. They are allowed to use water tainted by the waste to irrigate feed, as long as the nitrogen and other nutrients are taken up by the corn and other plants, rather than going into streams or groundwater.

The NRCS, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has funded improvements through its Bay-Delta Initiative since last year. It looks for small but high-impact projects to protect tributaries to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and San Francisco Bay.

The agency has been spending $5 million each year in Stanislaus and Merced counties. Farmers can apply for the current year, Groveman said, but future funding has not been determined.

Alberto milks about 1,500 cows and sells the product to Dairy Farmers of America, a national cooperative with plants in Turlock and Hughson.

The NRCS helped with a new pipeline between a manure storage area and the river, said Tony Agueda, who is Alberto's son-in-law and helps run the farm.

The old pipe took a steep route down the slope, which brought a risk of blowouts from high velocity. The new one takes a curvier, slower route, about 2,400 feet in all.

The farm also installed a pair of concrete boxes to regulate the flow along the pipeline, which carries a mix of fresh and manure-tainted water.

The improvements have made for much faster irrigation of the feed along with the reduced water consumption, Agueda said.

The proof is in the cornfield close to where he spoke: green and lush in the middle of a hot summer.

On the Net:More information on the Bay-Delta Initiative is at www.ca.nrcs.usda.gov.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2385.

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