MONROE, Wash. - Piled higher and deeper? Not anymore in Snohomish County,
if plans go as expected. Indeed, instead of leaking into salmon streams
lacing the area's bucolic dairy farms, manure will be converted into
electricity and fertilizer on 277 acres of state-owned land south of
The Tulalip tribes and farmers in this mid-Puget Sound region have worked
for three years to solidify the agreement. One thing that helped was a
common enemy - developers.
"The Tulalips came to use a pretty simple philosophy: 'We believe cows
would be better in these valleys than condos,'" said Andy Werkhoven, a
fourth-generation dairy farmer. "We, as farmers, couldn't agree more."
Cooperation between the tribes and farmers is a new thing. For years the
two groups have been at odds over land and water use. The tribes argued
that manure was tainting salmon streams, while farmers complained that
tribal treaty rights interfered with their ability to expand production and
In 2001, though, then-Tribal Chairman Herman Williams Jr. opened the door
to communication when he commended farmers during a celebration of dairyman
Dale Reiner's work to restore salmon habitat along a stream that cut
through his land. "Herman said some things that hadn't been said before,"
Reiner remembered. "He actually gave recognition to farmers, and that's a
remarkable thing for a tribal member to do."
Tulalip's Commissioner of Fisheries and Natural Resources Terry Williams
said: "One of the reasons we needed to engage the farming community is that
we view farmers a lot like our fishermen - independent, tied to the land
and water, working hard for what they produce.
"The more we see of landscape locked up, the less we see the viability of
our tribal culture."
Current Tulalip Tribal Chairman Stanley G. Jones Sr. agreed that there's
nothing like a common enemy to marshal the forces. "By coming together, the
Tulalip tribes and Snohomish Country farmers have been able to learn from
each other. From the learning comes a greater sense of appreciation for one
another, and the realization that we have a similar goal: to preserve our
cultures and livelihoods, be it farming or fishing."
Anaerobic digesters, the heart of biogas plants, use methane gas from
manure to produce power. In addition to energy, the digestion process
produces a fertilizer byproduct potentially worth as much as the
electricity generated from the methane.
Fuel is certainly no problem, with one lactating cow producing 80 or more
pounds of manure each day, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture
estimates. In Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana alone, the dairy cattle
population is more than 650,000. So, instead of tainting water and wreaking
havoc with the Tulalip tribes' efforts to rebuild salmon runs, manure will
be converted into saleable products and farmers will be able to expand the
size of their operations.
Using waste to produce renewable energy is, of course, expensive. While the
U.S. Energy Department provided $256,000 for a feasibility study, the USDA
has committed $500,000 for plant construction if the deadline for breaking
ground during spring of 2006 is met. Still, digesters are estimated to cost
between $1.5 and $2.5 million.
Energy Northwest, an umbrella energy organization that serves Snohomish
Country PUD, is considering buying in as the primary owner of the project.
A development specialist for Energy Northwest, Stan Davidson, indicated
that although the biogas plant works well with his organization's push for
alternative energy sources, some "pretty aggressive deadlines" must be met
in order to break ground in 2006 and secure the USDA support needed to move
There are 50 - 80 biogas digesters in the United States, with 29 systems
operating at dairies and the remainder at swine and poultry farms.
According to the Clark Group LLC, a consulting firm hired by the tribes and
farmers, the Snohomish County facility would be Washington's first biogas
plant and the Pacific Northwest's third.
While biogas production appears to be a win-win solution, members of the
environmental community point out that increasing livestock operations
doesn't score high on ecological sensitivity ratings. "We have mixed
reactions to this type of facility," said Roger Singer of the Sierra Club
Seattle chapter. "Discharge from the plant is better than having methane
disbursed in the air, but biogas plants help to promulgate the expansion of
confined animal feeding operations."
While the Tulalip's Williams acknowledges that the tribes "still have a way
to go," his focus is on the progress made since the mid-1970s. "We started
small, dealing with stream restoration and negotiating with timber
industries. Now with this latest agreement with the farmers, we've come a