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The Ordway Cattle Feeders lot in Crowley County on Jan. 26, 2022. The facility has the capacity to house over 50,000 head of cattle. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado may not have the reputation of some states for hosting massive “factory farms,” the way Iowa and North Carolina are associated with hogs, or Wisconsin is seen as a dairy assembly line. 

But “concentrated animal feeding operations,” an industry-preferred term, do dot the Rocky Mountain landscape, from beef feedlots to big hog operations to sprawling poultry sheds. And a confrontation looms on whether they need more regulation to ensure water quality in rural Colorado. 

Two environmental nonprofits successful in demanding tougher water quality regulation for big agriculture want Colorado courts to force state regulators into a new permitting system for large concentrations of animals. Colorado allows nearly a hundred mass operations to proceed under a general Clean Water Act permit that opponents say leaves loopholes, and fails to factor in how each farm operates or require enough water testing. 

Though it’s not decided yet whether the protest will move forward in state administrative court or a state district court, the legal challenge is formally on, with a hearing scheduled for Halloween. 

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The Center for Biological Diversity and Food & Water Watch want Colorado regulators to write individual permits for each big farm, accounting for local conditions and requiring monitoring wells to make sure groundwater isn’t tainted by runoff of manure or chemicals. The nonprofits have teamed up for the legal action with the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law. 

“Colorado can’t continue to pick and choose which industries get a pass for their unlawful pollution,” said Center for Biological Diversity senior attorney Hannah Connor. 

“They aggregate such significant amounts of animal waste and other pathogens and pollutants, and then have to dispose of those in ways that are really potentially harmful to environmental quality, water quality, and public and ecosystem health,” Connor said in an interview. 

Colorado has already recognized that big farms pose big threats and back in the 1990s, separated out large hog operations for individual permitting, Connor said. Colorado’s other large farm operations, including feedlots where cattle are fattened before market and large dairy operations, deserve more Clean Water Act scrutiny, she said. 

The Colorado Livestock Association rejects calls for a permit overhaul as an intervenor on behalf of large farm operators, saying Colorado’s general permit is much tougher than all other states called out by environmental groups. Large Colorado farms also dismiss the “factory farm” label, saying they should be referred to as “concentrated” operations, according to Colorado Livestock Association CEO Zach Riley. 

Each operation must get the permit, so it is in effect an individual requirement Riley said. Colorado already includes water monitoring and testing in the general permit, he added. The operators have also offered to settle the dispute with permit language even more protective of water sources, but the environmental advocates nixed that idea, Riley said. 

Individually crafted permits would raise expenses and overlap existing rules, and the effort is just an extension of ongoing advocacy attacks on big animal operations, Riley said. 

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“It’s death by a thousand cuts,” he said.

Nor is he a fan of environmental groups based elsewhere employing “the hometown university” to handle their case.

“Colorado has the best system out there,” Riley said. The existing permit already includes detailed rules on how much animal waste can be spread, and how often, for example, Riley said. “Our permit is very strict.”

The nonprofit advocacy groups said they won a victory in a similar case in Idaho last year. The federal EPA runs Idaho’s general permit program, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Idaho’s system didn’t guarantee enough water testing. States that do their own permitting are now watching to see how the EPA writes more detailed water quality rules for Idaho, said Tyler Lobdell, a staff attorney in Idaho for Food and Water Watch. 

“You have these fields that are receiving the manure, and what we’re demanding and what’s legally required is groundwater monitoring, specifically at the production area, where the animals are confined,” Lobdell said. That could include, Lobdell added, a required series of groundwater monitoring wells above the waste areas as a control test, and more wells below areas where contaminants are spread. 

“That’s the pollution the facility has contributed in that area,” he said. 

State water quality officials did not offer comments on the details of the permitting challenge, but said, “The permit we issued complies with all federal requirements established in the Clean Water Act and add additional groundwater protections established in state specific rules,” according to Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment spokeswoman Gabi Johnston.

Michael Booth

Michael Booth is a Colorado Sun reporter covering health, health policy and the environment. Email: Twitter: @MBoothDenver