On Valentine’s Day 2004, Erath County dairyman Willy DeJong was making plans to go out to dinner with his wife when he got some mail from the city of Waco. It was not a love letter.
The city was suing him under the federal Clean Water Act, alleging that his runoff from the fields where he spread cow manure was polluting the North Bosque River, which feeds Lake Waco.
In the next two years, he would spend more time fighting that lawsuit than he would running his 2,500-cow Hidden View Dairy, and he would pay his lawyers $1.8 million. In the end, he and 13 other dairies the city sued agreed to settlements that required them to haul off and monitor waste.
A decade after that summons arrived, DeJong occasionally sits down to lunch with city of Waco water officials and invites them onto his farm near Dublin. He recently got a permit to expand his milking herd to 3,500, with the city’s blessing.
“I’m not saying we’re all singing ‘Kumbaya’ on the banks of the Bosque,” DeJong said on a recent dairy tour with city water officials. “But we’re getting closer to that day.”
City of Waco and dairy industry officials agree that in the past few years, both sides have set aside their history of conflict and distrust and have moved into a new era of cooperation on river pollution issues.
“I think we have more trust,” said Tom Conry, longtime water quality manager for the city of Waco. “To my knowledge, they’re taking us at face value, and we’re doing the same thing. . . . I think now that we’re meeting and talking, they see we’re not asking for impossibilities.”
City officials have credited Darren Turley, head of the Texas Association of Dairies since 2009, for being willing to find common ground with the city. In the past, the city and the association have been at opposite sides of courthouse battles.
Turley, who ran a Dublin-area dairy for years before taking his current post, now regularly attends meetings of the Bosque River Coalition, along with city officials and others concerned about environmental issues in the river. That coalition in the past has sued dairies for water pollution.
Turley often acts as an intermediary when the city has a concern about a dairy operator in the watershed.
“It’s not a hostile atmosphere like it was before,” Turley said.
That’s not all that has changed since the battles over the Bosque heated up in the early 2000s.
State regulators say water quality in the North Bosque River has greatly improved because of measures dairy operators were forced to take, though city of Waco officials say that may be attributable to the drought cycle of recent years.
In the meantime, the dairy industry upstream of Waco has defied predictions of rapid growth, losing more than half of its dairies, including some of those the city sued.
“The huge shrinkage has changed things dramatically,” Turley said.
Late 1980s studies
State officials began studying the North Bosque River’s pollution problems in the late 1980s, coinciding with the rapid growth in the dairy industry in the Erath County area. Much, but not all, of that farming area is in the North Bosque River watershed.
Dairy manure is high in phosphorus, a plant nutrient that stimulates growth of blue-green algae in the North Bosque River and Lake Waco. The algae blooms can kill fish and make the city’s drinking water taste and smell bad.
In 2001, the state adopted new goals for reducing phosphorus in the river between Stephenville and Waco. That same year, the city of Waco successfully pushed for state legislation that mandated new permits for large dairies in the North Bosque watershed, along with extra-stringent waste management regulations. Wastewater plants in Clifton and Stephenville were also required to cut phosphorus emissions.
After the new rules were in place, the city of Waco continued battling the dairies by opposing permits for expansion, monitoring waste disposal practices by helicopter and filing Clean Water Act lawsuits in 2004.
Turley said the city’s actions created a negative business climate in the watershed, creating uncertainty for dairy farmers as well as extra regulations. He said many dairy farmers moved to the Panhandle region in the mid-2000s as a result.
“It really was a big impact on the community and ability for it to continue dairying,” he said. “Once you saw all the lawsuits and legal battles start, the dairy business changed dramatically.”
Dairy leaders blamed the city of Waco’s activism for delays in the process of dairies getting permit renewals and making the necessary waste disposal improvements to their land. Just as those permits started to be granted in the late 2000s, the dairy industry began to crater.
First came the 2008 recession, followed by a collapse of U.S. milk prices in 2009, caused by a glut of domestic supply and a weakening of overseas demand. Farmers complained that it cost more to make a gallon of milk than to sell it, and many started selling off their herds for hamburger meat.
A record-breaking Texas drought in 2011, followed by a Midwest drought the following year that raised grain prices, drove many Central and North Texas dairy operators out of business. Those who had made big investments in waste management systems were especially vulnerable, Turley said.
“They incurred a lot of debt to meet the requirements,” he said. “If you went into those bad times carrying any more debt, it was that much harder to survive.”
In 2000, Erath, Hamilton and Comanche counties boasted 208 dairies and were the heart of Texas’ most productive dairy region, known as the Cross Timbers. Now they’re down to 73.
Those three counties, along with 10 others in the Cross Timbers, saw their cow numbers dwindle from 127,879 in 2000 to 65,771 in 2012.
In fact, every region of Texas lost more than half of its milk cows in that period — except for the Panhandle, which added more than 200,000 cows. That region has fewer environmental issues and cooler nights, which makes milk cows more productive.
Turley said the industry has stabilized now, with better milk prices, but it’s not easy.
“If you’re in the dairy business today, it’s like starting over,” he said. “You’re having to borrow money like it’s a new dairy. What people don’t know is how hard it’s been, and this is one of the worst places.”
DeJong, the Dublin dairyman, said that in 2009 he thought he would have to fold the dairy he had owned for three decades.
“If you’re in the dairy business today, you’re a survivor,” said DeJong, who is one of the area’s larger dairy operators, producing 18,000 gallons of milk a day.
New cleaning system
The regulations that the state imposed in the early 2000s caused DeJong to abandon a waste flushing system he had installed for $500,000. He spent $1 million on a new system that involves vacuuming out his concrete stalls daily and shipping the waste to his neighbors’ fields by truck.
Still, DeJong said he has no quarrel with the stricter regulations that impelled him to install a new system.
“No, I would say it was a financial benefit to me,” he said. “My hat is off to the state for doing what they did.”
The city sued DeJong even after he installed the new system. DeJong said the problem was that he couldn’t prove that the waste he was shipping off his farm wasn’t being overapplied, creating high soil phosphorus levels that could then run off into creeks.
As part of the settlement agreement, DeJong agreed to weigh and sample the waste before he sent it off, and to ensure that the fields where it was applied didn’t get too saturated with phosphorus.
“That information didn’t exist before,” he said. “I believe that once we started doing that, they saw that there was enough land. It was a way to prove up what was already happening.
“I think 80 percent of the conflict was because of the unknown. We were arguing over something none us knew.”
DeJong said the data collection made it possible to show the city that expanding his herd would not create more phosphorus runoff.
Jenna Walker, watershed administrator for the city of Waco, visits DeJong’s farm periodically and chats with him over lunch at Bosque River Coalition meetings. She said his openness has helped city officials understand the challenges dairy farmers face in meeting regulations and how to work through them.
She said that relationship is “unique,” but several other farmers have shown signs of cooperation, and she thinks the city and dairy industry are working well together.
“It’s a work in progress, but judging from our relationship with Darren Turley and Willy, I would say yes,” she said.
Walker said the lower recorded phosphorus levels on the North Bosque are a good sign, but she said low rainfall levels may explain much of the improvement. She said the city is planning a new environmental study of Lake Waco that should shed some light on whether the upstream practices have improved Waco’s water quality.
Walker was along on a recent tour of Hidden View Dairy as DeJong crawled along in his big white truck, with a license plate that reads “MILK-M.”
One of his 25 employees passed on a tractor, and DeJong rolled down his window to converse in Spanglish.
“Check the puerta and make sure it’s cerrado,” he said.
DeJong, 53, is one of four brothers who own dairy farms in Texas and elsewhere, and he hopes to pass this one along to his grown children. Despite the loss of dairy farms in the Erath County area, he said it remains a good place to have a dairy and raise a family.
“We all live here,” he said. “I take pride in my farm and my cows.”