Hog farm expansion raises questions about water use
By TREVOR GRAFF
KHI News Service
TRIBUNE -- Even as Greeley County farmers are counting water by the drop, Seaboard Farms plans to increase production at its giant hog facility near here, bringing as many as 396,000 hogs to an exhausted area of the Ogallala Aquifer.
Seaboard Farms' planned expansion at its Ladder Creek facility would make it the second largest of its kind in the country. The plan, approved by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment in March, has some local residents and environmentalists questioning its prudence and feasibility.
"They're (water officials) telling farmers out here to cut back irrigation," said Julie Samuelson, publisher of the Western Times, a newspaper in Sharon Springs. "Water has become a big bone of contention out here -- just the fact that you tell one form of agriculture you have to cut down your water use, but then let corporate agriculture use more."
Samuelson said one farmer near the Ladder Creek site has only five years of groundwater left at his home, and several families have moved from their farms to town after their wells became too expensive to operate.
Groundwater Management District No. 1 is considering measures to cut irrigation in the area by as much as 20 percent in the coming months.
Even so, Seaboard's new permit allows it to boost head counts at the Ladder Creek facility from 132,000 mature, 275-pound hogs to 198,000 mature hogs or 396,000 hogs still in growing stages. Increasing the number of hogs also significantly will increase the amount of water used at the facility.
Spokespeople for Seaboard did not return calls seeking comment.
Local farmers object
In written testimony to the agency during the permit process, several local farmers asked KDHE to withhold approval of the expansion, citing the area's lack of water.
But KDHE officials said once water rights are established, water quantity is not a factor in the agency's final permitting process.
"Once the Department of Water Resources has issued the water rights for them, then water quantity goes on DWR (Division of Water Resources), and we just worry about water quality," said Terry Medley, chief of the Livestock Waste Management Section at KDHE's Bureau of Water. "But we do verify that they have the water rights."
Lane Letourneau, water appropriations program manager at the state Division of Water Resources, said Seaboard purchased existing rights in the area in compliance with state regulations.
Water levels in the aquifer dropped more than 51 inches in 2012 and have dropped 14 feet since 1996, according to the Kansas Geological Survey.
"The appropriations far exceed the current recharge, and so it's running at a tremendous deficit now," said Duane Schrag, co-conservation chair of the Kansas Sierra Club. "Any potential attempt to get more water out only accelerates that process."
In January 2013, DWR granted Ladder Creek term permits allowing for the pumping of 158.61 million gallons of groundwater for industrial use over the course of the year.
But even with the permit, Ladder Creek has struggled to maintain the required water levels in its anaerobic sewage lagoons, which are designed to control odor and assist in breaking down manure generated by the hogs. The lagoons require the proper volume of water for the growth of bacteria to break down the waste and control odor.
In December 2012, KDHE officials gave the Ladder Creek site a variance from the permit when they did not meet the 14-foot water level requirements. At the time of inspection, Seaboard was told to submit a plan to bring the lagoons into compliance by Jan. 31, 2013.
Agency records show Seaboard began filling the lagoons Feb. 7, 2013, after submitting a plan to be compliant in six to eight months. The department approved.
"They (KDHE officials) say, 'Well, they don't have enough water, so we're going to grant them a variance,' and then they turn right around and allow them to increase the size of this facility by 50 percent," Volland said. "That just does not compute."
Environmentalists said KDHE is not a particularly strong enforcer of its own regulations, noting in Wichita County, the department allowed a smaller hog farm to operate more than three years on an expired permit from June 2008 to October 2011.
Kansas law doesn't distinguish between smaller hog operations and one the size of the Ladder Creek facility. A facility with 10,000 hogs is held to the same standard as one with 198,000 mature hogs.
"Really, we just make sure that each one meets the statute's regulations, and if they do, then we really don't have a whole lot of authority to make them do something different," Medley said. "We're making sure they're following the requirements to protect water quality, and that's all we have the authority to do."
Medley said he saw no need to change the law to account for the added size of a facility such as Ladder Creek.
Beyond water quantity issues, some local residents and environmentalists question the site's compliance with federal Clean Water Act guidelines, which are administered by KDHE. They said the expansion would make controlling odor from the site's sewage lagoons more difficult.
"Our principal concern is our sense that the neighbors to such a large facility -- the neighbors who didn't benefit economically by sale of the land, for example -- are being really unfairly treated because they have to suffer the consequences of these things," said Craig Volland, agriculture chairman of the Kansas Chapter of the Sierra Club. "They get no economic recovery from it."
At Ladder Creek, KDHE is trusting Seaboard to verify the number of hogs on site. The hog population correlates directly to the amount of waste generated and the odor produced.
"We do have the authority to go in the barns. We typically don't because they (Seaboard officials) submit monthly reports or keep them on site," Medley said. "The monthly reports indicate how many head are on site, and then they submit an annual report that also gives the maximum number that they've had on site during the year."
Medley said the company also provides a report on the amount of waste generated at the facility.
"We can pretty much correlate the number on site with the waste generated. Unless we see a huge discrepancy in those numbers, we really don't take the risk of going inside the barns and spreading disease," he said.
Disease has become a significant issue in confined swine operations. Porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, or PEDv, has spread to 27 states, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The USDA announced in April a program requiring the pork industry to report all cases of the virus and will be working closely with state agencies to stem its spread.
To keep the virus from entering the Ladder Creek site, Seaboard is among producers taking extra precautions, including postponing state inspections.
A November 2012 letter from Seaboard to KDHE stated the company quarantined its Kansas operations and had "postponed all inspections in Kansas sites due to biosecurity issues."
Medley said there was nothing unusual about that.
"They can't completely deny or make it unreasonable for us to go," Medley said. "We do have our own biosecurity protocols, and we follow theirs as well."
New approach needed
With water supply and quality issues growing in importance, Kansas policy-makers should examine state laws to determine whether they are adequate to protect the public interest, said Roger McEowen, director at the Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation at Iowa State University.
McEowen isn't convinced they are.
"Some people are going to claim that they're violating state law," McEowen said. "No, they're not. This is permissible, but is this the best policy going forward into the future where there will be battles over scarcer resources? That's the real issue."
He said Kansas might want to consider a water-use system like Nebraska's. There, he said, both surface and groundwater use are directly linked and water rights are given with stricter consideration of what consumption might mean to neighboring holders of water rights.
"The system that we have had in Kansas for some time -- with the chief engineer at the Division of Water Resource's authority, the groundwater management districts, the local people -- you have to ask, 'Is that system functioning to protect all parties' vested right?' " McEowen said. "People in policy-making positions have really got to think through this and get up to speed on it."