© 2024 WRVO Public Media
NPR News for Central New York
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Massive manure lagoon project worries Watertown city officials

Livestock & Poultry Environmental Learning Center
A large covered manure lagoon at a farm in Illinois.

One dairy cow produces close to eight tons of manure a year. On big farms, that poses a serious, and regulated, waste disposal problem. In the spring and summer, farmers can spread manure on their fields before planting. But in the winter, all that manure has to be stored somewhere.

Milk Street Dairy in Jefferson County has more than 1,000 dairy cows. The owners are constructing a seven-million gallon lagoon to hold liquid manure. The site is on Ridge Road in the town of Rutland. It overlooks the Black River, and Watertown city officials aren’t happy.

Milk Street Dairy began planning the lagoon after the New York State Department of Conservation said it was running out of space for its manure. The farm selected the Ridge Road site and the DEC approved.

But when city officials in Watertown discovered the manure would sit on a hill only 1,500 feet from the Black River, they started to worry. A lot of Jefferson County, including the city and all of Fort Drum relies on the Black River for its drinking water. Wells and aquifers are scattered underground in the area. 

“There was a concern that there would be a migration of fluids underground and I guess you have to address that,” Watertown Mayor Jeffrey Graham said. 

Graham says the city has met with the DEC to share its concerns. Back in 2005, three million gallons of liquid manure spilled into the Black River from a manure pit on Mark’s Farms in Lowville. The spill killed fish and contaminated the city’s drinking water. Jefferson County agricultural administrator Jay Matteson says that structure was not designed by engineers. He says the Milk Street Dairy lagoon will be.

“I understand everyone’s concerns about protecting drink water resources. I’d take a close look at it at well. But let’s not look at it like it’s going to leak and its going to break. I’ve helped designed some of these structures in Jefferson County and they don’t leak and they don’t break,” Matteson said.

The DEC has decided to stop the project for at least a year. The agency released a statement saying it will make sure the Milk Street Dairy manure lagoon is “carefully examined with coordination by  experts and involved federal agencies, to assure that the Watertown regional water supply is not placed at risk."

In the meantime, the Development Authority of the North Country, the city of Watertown and the farm will split the cost of an independent study to test where the manure would flow if the structure leaks.