ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Jana Hughes' problems began with flies and odors from dairies near her family's rural southeastern New Mexico home, but then she discovered dairies are linked to water pollution.
Tests showed elevated levels of nitrates in her family's well near Hobbs. The well is not considered contaminated because nitrate levels fall below allowable limits, but "when we drink that water, we get ill," Hughes said.
So her family has been hauling water for nine miles since 2008.
The state Environment Department — which says groundwater pollution exists at more than 65 percent of New Mexico's dairies — has proposed new regulations on the industry to protect groundwater.
"We have extensive contamination from dairies across the state, especially in shallow groundwater areas," such as the Rio Grande and Pecos river valleys, said Bill Olson, chief of the Environment Department's Ground Water Quality Bureau.
The industry contends the proposed requirements are so costly they could force up to half the state's dairies to move or go out of business.
"What they'll do is put a burden of extra cost that is not backed up by sound science," said longtime dairyman Alva Carter Jr., chairman of the Dairy Industry Group for a Clean Environment.
Olson disputes that.
"Maybe they don't like our science, but we have provided extensive science behind our regulations," he said.
The state Water Quality Control Commission will begin hearings on the proposals Tuesday in Santa Fe, but it probably will be late summer before deliberations begin. The 2009 Legislature required the commission to adopt regulations with specific requirements for discharge of dairy wastewater.
Carter said it was the dairy industry that sought regulations because the Environment Department was applying current rules inconsistently and adding costly conditions to dairies' water quality permits.
The industry had the same complaint about federal rules. When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered 11 southern New Mexico dairies to comply with the Clean Water Act in 2007, dairy officials said they cooperated, but the agency's rules constantly changed.
Criticism of the state proposals include requirements for wastewater pond liners and monitoring wells, which dairies say would be an expensive burden in tough economic times and low milk prices.
The industry's position is backed by resolutions passed by local governments in areas with dairies.
Milk is New Mexico's top cash commodity, producing more than $1.36 billion in 2008, according to the state Department of Agriculture. New Mexico ranked ninth in the U.S. for milk production and fourth in cheese production that year, the latest for which figures are available.
Carter contends added expense from the regulations would cost cities, counties and the state millions in tax revenue as dairies are forced to close or leave.
Olson said the industry isn't counting the cost of cleaning up polluted water.
"We have basic disagreements on the economics," he said. "They say there are costs involved, and we agree, but the cost of pollution on these is huge."
Dairy neighbor Hughes agrees.
"They're only talking about the (dairies') cost, but no one has brought up how we're going to remedy the groundwater contamination," she said.
A clean water coalition, the Citizens Coalition, generally supports the proposed regulations, but would like to see some parts toughened, including covering more pollutants, said Dan Lorimier, conservation coordinator for the Sierra Club's Rio Grande chapter, which is part of the group.
The rules "considerably strengthen the protections for New Mexico groundwater while allowing the dairy industry to continue its economic growth," he said.
The industry objects to a requirement for double liners for wastewater ponds at new dairies in areas of shallow groundwater, saying dual liners haven't been proved necessary.
"It's an overreach," Carter said.
Olson said the state isn't proposing a blanket requirement for new liners.
"As long as an impound is not causing groundwater contamination, no matter what type of liner it has, it's not required to be retrofitted," he said.
The industry also objects that requirements for monitoring wells would force many dairies to drill multiple new wells.
The coalition contends monitoring wells are the only way to test water purity or measure pollutants.
Hughes said the rules will let dairies operate but better protect the environment.
"We can't continue to use the old regulations and attitudes, because that's why we're facing what we're facing today," she said.