Even as dairy policy demands the spotlight in Washington, and worldwide sales opportunities beckon, cheese manufacturers today find themselves preoccupied with regulation.
In Wisconsin, growth, new markets and new jobs all hinge more on the ability to process wash water than on making a great piece of cheese.
Two years ago, the preoccupation was new phosphorus regulations proposed and implemented by Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Looking to strictly interpret the Clean Water Act, Wisconsin enacted the nation’s most stringent standards for the level of phosphorus in wastewater that is processed and released to rivers and streams.
That regulation continues to play out. As five-year wastewater permits come due, dairy plant by dairy plant, DNR installs new, low limits for phosphorus in permit renewals. By the DNR’s own estimate, the cost to dairy and food processing plants in Wisconsin will be $440 million to add filtration systems to reduce phosphorus in wastewater from 2 mg/l down to 1 mg/l or lower. A huge cost for a handful of phosphorus.
Today, cheese manufacturers and food processors in Wisconsin are engaged in new negotiations with the state’s DNR. Cheese manufacturers, from the largest state cooperative to the smallest proprietary cheese makers, hold a total of 57 permits to apply processed wastewater onto cropland. Some spray-irrigate grassy fields, some release wastewater on engineered, grass-covered terrace systems.
As these five-year wastewater permits come due, these “land-based” wastewater systems are being renewed with new limits on the amount of wastewater that can be spread on an acre, and limits on the pounds of dissolved solids, namely nitrogen and chloride, that can be spread per acre.
Limiting wastewater means limiting cheese production. And not only can limits curtail growth, but the cost to add new wastewater processing systems and more acres of land can again mean millions of dollars in unrecoverable costs for dairy plants.
New, lower limits for land-applying wastewater are puzzling to cheese makers. Wisconsin food and dairy processors currently meet required groundwater quality standards and are willing to install even more monitoring wells to address performance and regulatory sampling requirements at their land-application sites. With consistent monitoring, the industry is able to demonstrate that these soil-based treatment systems meet groundwater quality standards without new, restrictive limits.
In land application systems, soil and cover crops naturally treat and reduce dissolved solids found in wastewater. Soil treatment requires considerably less fossil fuel when compared to man-made, bio-mechanical systems promoted by the DNR. Wastewater from food and dairy plants is generally water used to clean equipment, wash vegetables and cool products.
Nitrogen is treated and removed in properly designed and operated soil treatment systems through natural soil nitrification and denitrification, as well as uptake into crops. Systems in operation that receive 300 pounds to more than 1,000 pounds of nitrogen per acre each year successfully treat and remove nitrogen.
Nitrogen loadings to local aquifers from soil treatment systems are far less than those associated with other land use activities including farming and residential use.
Chloride concentrations in wastewater have, on average, been reduced to less than 300 mg/l industry wide. Typically, chloride concentrations are further reduced by a factor of 5 to 10 or more due to uptake by plants grown on these soil treatment acres and by dilution from precipitation and groundwater. Chloride loadings to local aquifers from soil treatment systems are far less than those associated with road deicing and conventional farming practices.
Cheese makers and food processors are now in discussions with DNR regarding these lower limits in land application permits. These foodmakers are asking DNR to provide scientific and quantitative justification for annual restrictions on wastewater volumes. Decades of data from monitoring well samples show that groundwater quality is being maintained. New lower limits appear arbitrary and burdensome.
Wisconsin’s manufacturers of vegetables, cheese and other foods are as interested as any state citizen in keeping Wisconsin groundwater pure. These processors are willing to adhere to groundwater standards and monitor and consistently test their soil treatment systems. These new limits on dissolved solids in wastewater haven’t been justified by regulators.
In an era of explosive specialty cheese growth, worldwide opportunities for export and crucial wrangling over the future of dairy policy, cheese makers should be planning for the future, not mired in wash water. JU
John Umhoefer has served as executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association since 1992. You can phone John at (608) 828-4550; Fax him at (608) 828-4551; or e-mail John Umhoefer at
*Comments will remain anonymous.
Cheese Reporter retains the right to publish anonymous comments to
continue the discussion of this editorial. Comments do not necessary
reflect those of Cheese Reporter Publishing Co. Inc.