BOISE, Idaho — A Senate panel on Thursday approved legislation that's the product of Idaho's hundreds of thousands of cows and the 50 million pounds of cow manure they produce daily.
The Senate Agricultural Affairs Committee voted 5-3 to send to the full Senate the bill requiring state officials to consider economic ramifications when imposing pollution regulations on farms and ranches producing manure to protect nearby communities and the environment from pollution.
The bill has been promoted by by the Idaho Dairymen's Association, Idaho Cattle Association, J.R. Simplot Co. and other agricultural groups.
The legislation follows an unsuccessful attempt by agriculture groups to weaken current standards involving the amount of cow manure that can be put on fields. The Idaho State Department of Agriculture declined to weaken those standards, citing scientific research that sets best practices for pollution control.
Cow manure can be used as a fertilizer for crops. But it contains phosphorous that can pollute waterways through direct runoff or by traveling through water underground and coming out in springs.
According to the state agriculture department, Idaho cows produce about 13 billion pounds of milk annually valued at more than $2.2 billion. That makes it the state's top agriculture industry.
Backers of the bill said pollution regulations shouldn't be so onerous that they force ranches, farms and companies out of business — and that economic considerations need to be among the primary considerations before such rules are enacted to protect the environment.
Opponents said the new law will cause the Idaho State Department of Agriculture to put economic considerations ahead of protecting the environment. They also said it could jeopardize the state recently acquiring power from the federal government to regulate some aspects of water pollution.
Bob Naerebout of the Idaho Dairymen's Association told lawmakers that the industry wants to abide by regulations, "but if those are not economically sustainable, then those shouldn't be put in place."
Republican Sen. Dan Johnson voted against the bill.
"This feels like it's a little bit precedent-setting, what we're doing here, because we're really trying to raise economics or feasibility or viability to the same level as, quite honestly, protection of the resources," he said.
South-central Idaho, where most of the state's dairies are located, is home to about 425,000 dairy cows that produce an estimated 50 million pounds of cow manure per day. Overall, Idaho has about 600,000 cows.
The Snake River flows through that area. It is polluted with phosphorous and nitrogen, which are byproducts of cow waste, and also by human waste from sewage systems.