Water Board to Fine Dairy in Dispute Over Herd Size

Times Staff Writer

Officials with the state Regional Water Quality Control Board said Thursday they plan to assess major fines against an embattled local dairy that failed to obtain the required permits before it vastly increased the size of its herd.

The board’s action could force Whelan Ranch to pay more than $210,000 in fines for increasing its herd to 1,200 head from about 300 and then violating a state order mandating that the number of animals be reduced.

David Barker, a senior engineer with the regional board, said the dairy was ordered by the board in April to reduce its herd to 464 head of cattle by May 23. By failing to meet the deadline, the dairy’s operators may face fines as high as $6,000 for each day they are in violation of the order.

“The board takes this very seriously and is quite concerned that the Whelan dairy did not reduce the herd size after they were ordered to,” Barker said. “We plan to issue this complaint in the next few days,” he said, adding that the board also plans to hold a public hearing on the matter.


On another front, the Oceanside City Council agreed this week to direct the city attorney to investigate the possibility of annexing the 323-acre dairy, which sits in a pocket of unincorporated county land bordering Camp Pendleton in the San Luis Rey Valley.

Dana Whitson, the city’s special projects director, said council members have received numerous calls from neighbors of the dairy complaining that odors from the operation are intolerable.

“Since they expanded the herd out there, we’ve had complaints of horrendous smells,” Whitson said. “The irony of the problem is, the people affected by the cows live in the City of Oceanside, but the dairy itself is under county control.”

Last year, at the urging of dairymen, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors directed its planning staff to draft an amendment allowing eight dairies to expand their herds. The amendment would permit 25 head of cattle per acre, or a possible total of 8,075 animals at Whelan Ranch. Under the current county zoning, only 327 cows are allowed at the Oceanside dairy.


On Wednesday, the supervisors upheld that position, despite a recommendation by staff planners that each dairy be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine specific effects of herd expansion on neighboring residents. The change will come before the board again at a public hearing later this year.

Oceanside council members oppose the county’s approach and have become increasingly frustrated with the supervisors’ failure to acknowledge the problems at Whelan Ranch. Annexing the property would give Oceanside the authority to regulate the herd size.

“Frankly, we’re tired of relying on the good faith of the county to address this problem,” Whitson said, adding that it is not the city’s intention to “see a subdivision replace the dairy. We merely want some land-use control out there.”

Annexing the property, however, could be a thorny task, according to the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), a state agency that must approve all annexations.


Michael Ott, a senior analyst with LAFCO, said the dairy would probably be considered “uninhabited territory,” meaning that fewer than 12 registered voters reside there. If that’s the case, a protest by a property owner controlling more than 50% of the assessed value of the land could abort annexation proceedings.

Yet another factor clouds the picture: Ellen Whelan, the dairy’s owner for 50 years, died recently, leaving two widely different wills that are the focus of a bitter court contest involving the U.S. attorney’s office. A trial is set for Aug. 9.

“If there is some doubt over who has title to the land, as it seems there is at this point, that could definitely complicate matters,” Ott said.

The water quality board’s concerns relate to water quality problems caused by the increased number of cows at Whelan Ranch, which is believed to have about 1,200 head of cattle, 620 of which are used for milking. The board’s staff estimates the dairy generates 62,000 gallons of milk-barn wash water, plus wash water from feeding ramps and corral runoff.


Dairy waste consists mostly of water and manure, which can contain organisms infectious to humans. It can also contain detergent, disinfectant, salts and nitrogen--all harmful to water quality.

Regulators consider the waste a very high-strength product and note that a 1,000-head dairy generates the same waste load as a community of 17,000 people.

Regional board investigators have said that waste from the dairy drains into Pilgrim Creek, which feeds the ocean-bound San Luis Rey River, and into Whelan Lake, which is a source for irrigation of nearby pastureland. The board’s staff says the lake cannot assimilate the dairy’s increased waste, noting that sediment from the runoff is three feet thick in spots.

“These problems arose when the dairy illicitly increased the herd size, thereby increasing the volume of waste water discharged,” Barker said. The dairy twice violated the California Water Code--by failing to obtain a permit to increase the waste water discharges and by failing to meet the deadline for herd reduction, Barker said.


Jeanne McBride is the county public administrator who assumed control of the dairy earlier this year because of the contested will. McBride said she has attempted to reduce the herd but has had difficulty obtaining the permission of the probate court, which must approve major actions relating to the estate.

A hearing on the matter is scheduled for Thursday.

“I don’t want to pay any fines, but reducing the herd isn’t something you do overnight,” McBride said.