When we picture California agriculture, we tend to think of almond and citrus orchards and the massive tracts of strawberry and lettuce fields that we can see from the highways dividing the western part of the state from the east.
But dairy is, in fact, king.
And because most people in the state don’t see the abundance of dairy farms—most of them function like feedlots surrounded by fields of feed crops such as alfalfa and corn growing nearby—they may not be aware of the fact that they use millions of gallons of water a day.
As the climate crisis ramps up, California is facing its third consecutive year of drought after its driest winter conditions in 100 years, and everyone in the state has grown increasingly reliant on a rapidly shrinking quantity of groundwater. Advocates say it’s a good time to take a closer look at the water use behind your milk (and butter, cheese, etc.), how the large-scale dairy industry has impacted groundwater in the state, as well as how it affects low-income Californians, communities of color, and small-scale farms.
All dairy production requires an abundance of water. The animals drink it, but it’s also used to cool the milk, keep the dairies clean, and cool off cows in the warm months. And it’s needed to irrigate the alfalfa and other feed crops.
In a recent white paper, the advocacy nonprofit Food & Water Watch estimates that it takes 142 million gallons of water a day to maintain the dairy cows in California. “That’s more than enough water to provide the daily recommended water usage for every resident of San Jose and San Diego combined,” reads the paper.
The California dairy industry uses “more than enough water to provide the daily recommended water usage for every resident of San Jose and San Diego combined.”
The industry takes pride in the fact that much of the water used inside dairies gets recycled and used to spray manure on crops as fertilizer (as a way of managing the large quantities of waste these dairies produce). The California Milk Producers Council also recently pointed to a yet-to-be-validated study that modeled the water flow on and off a typical 1,000-cow dairy and found that while it uses 112 acre-feet a year, it “exported” 98 acre-feet in the form of spraying it on crops.
This circular logic—the idea that water use doesn’t count because it’s then used on crops to produce milk—isn’t new either. In a 2019 op-ed, Geoff Vanden Heuvel, director of regulatory and economic affairs at the Dairy Producer’s Council, wrote on the group’s website, “the actual footprint of your dairy itself—the corrals, the milking barn, the feed storage pads and feed alleys—have zero consumptive water use. The only water that is lost on a dairy operation is in the milk that is sold off the farm and the water contained in body of the cow when it is shipped off the dairy for culling.”
The industry also points to its water efficiency improvement over time. Researchers at University of California, Davis (funded by the American Dairy Science Association), found that the water used per gallon of milk dropped by 88 percent in the 50 years between 1964 and 2014.
“That’s really because the crop yields have gone up so much in the last 60 years,” said Ermias Kebreab, associate dean for global engagement in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at U.C. Davis. “Because of genetic improvement and breeding, we’ve seen a huge increase in yields.”
“The industry likes to tout its efficiency, which I don’t disagree with. The thing that the industry doesn’t normally acknowledge is that when you increase efficiency for dairy cows, you also increase [overall] water use.”
However, the quantity of milk being produced in the state has also increased in that time. “The industry likes to tout its efficiency, which I don’t disagree with. The thing that the industry doesn’t normally acknowledge is that when you increase efficiency for dairy cows, you also increase [overall] water use,” said Michael Claiborne, a senior attorney at Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, a community-based advocacy organization located in the Central Valley.
“You have to take into consideration how much more volume is being created. So, the actual tally for water use is far more enormous than it ever has been,” says Amanda Starbuck, a researcher and policy analyst for Food & Water Watch.
“And those gains we’ve seen in dairy production are due to the fact that we have newer [dairy cow] breeds that grow faster,” adds Starbuck. “We put milk cows through cycles of pregnancy and lactation much quicker than we had in the past, and cows live shorter lives because of that, and lower-quality lives. They are bred to produce as much milk as they possibly can before they are literally taken out to pasture.”
Dairy production in the state goes back to the 18th century, but the quantity of mega-dairies that now operate throughout the Central Valley is a relatively recent phenomenon. Warmer weather allows for dairies that don’t have to keep their animals indoors for multiple months at a time, and that fact—combined with the speed at which alfalfa can be grown in the sunny parts of the West—have facilitated a massive shift in the industry.
In states like New York, Vermont, and Wisconsin, where many small-scale producers are closing up shop at an alarming rate, dairy operations traditionally graze their cattle on pasture for much of the year. The mega-dairies that have sprung up in states like California, Oregon, Arizona, and Idaho in recent decades, on the other hand, are mainly confinement-based, or what they call “dry lot” operations.
Meanwhile, small and medium dairies in the state have also been shutting down. From 1997 to 2017, California lost 60 percent of its dairies with fewer than 500 cows.
The bulk of the mega dairies are located in the state’s Central Valley. Tulare County, the top dairy county in the state, brought in more than $1.8 billion in dairy sales in 2020; it’s commonly known that the county is home to more cows than people.
As drought conditions have radically reduced the quantity of surface water that’s available for agriculture, mega-dairies are pumping more and more groundwater to meet their needs.
Their practice of spraying their manure on nearby crops also sends nitrogen—in the form of nitrates—back into the soil, where it eventually leaches into the groundwater. This is compounded by the nitrogen pollution from other fertilizer running off crop fields and municipal sewage systems.
“It’s a widespread issue throughout the valley. Up to 40 percent of domestic wells (and even more in some areas) are impacted by nitrate levels that are above the safe drinking water standards,” says Claiborne.
“We say water flows toward money and power. And so, you can just see that in the middle of a drought who has access to that [drilling] and those deeper wells.”
The health impacts of nitrate-polluted water are well-documented. A 2019 study found that nitrate pollution in U.S. drinking water could cause over 12,000 cases of cancer each year. And that’s not the only known health impact; elevated nitrates in water have also been linked to miscarriages, fetal deformations, and a deadly blood disorder called blue baby syndrome.
As wells all over the valley run dry (including a total of 446 so far this year), Susana De Anda, co-executive director and co-founder of the Community Water Center, points to the fact that larger agriculture operations tend to have the resources needed to access groundwater, even if it means drilling deep underground.
“When you drill deeper into our aquifers, the wells are very expensive,” says De Anda. “And those deep wells are also causing major subsidence and major pressure problems around nearby public water systems. We say water flows toward money and power. And so, you can just see that in the middle of a drought who has access to that [drilling] and those deeper wells.”
That drilling isn’t completely without limits. As the state has begun implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act—which was put in place in 2014 to ensure the protection of groundwater around the state—the dairy industry is anticipating changes related to how many crops it can produce locally. In fact, the industry recently announced the formation of a Manure Recycling & Innovative Products Task Force to address what will happen when the farms are left with more manure than crop land to spray it on.
“Competing uses for crop land, and now the limits to pumping groundwater as a result of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, have heightened the attention to the fact that there is very likely a manure surplus on many California dairies,” according to the Dairy Producer’s Council’s Vanden Heuvel. The implication is that the task force plans to export its fertilizer while importing more feed crops, raising questions about the industry’s long-term viability in the state.
Many municipal water systems in the Central Valley are so polluted with nitrates that residents have become accustomed to buying drinking water. Water stores and vending machines are a common sight in the region.
“Our poorest families are having to pay some of the highest water rates for toxic water,” says De Anda. “In some situations, they’re paying 10 percent of their household income alone on drinking water, because they’re paying for a water bill and then they still have to [pay for] bottled water.”
And, when it comes to mega-dairies, some residents deal with the impacts much more directly. Take Cristobal Chavez. He and his family moved to Porterville, California—in the southern part of Tulare County—in 2008. He had been driving trucks in Los Angeles for more than two decades and when he injured himself, he and his wife bought a small farm and took on a series of foster children in addition to their biological kids. “We wanted a quieter, safer life,” he says.
“Our poorest families are having to pay some of the highest water rates for toxic water. . . .They’re paying for a water bill and then they still have to [pay for] bottled water.”
The land they bought was across the street from a large dairy that he says was home to around 10,000 cows at the time. It may have grown since then, but he’s not sure. “There are lots of corrals. The air smells so bad you can’t leave your clothes outside.”
And they use a lot of tap water—to wash the cows, to wash [away] the manure, and it accumulates in the reservoir, says Chavez.
It wasn’t until 2014 that the Community Water Center helped him get the water in his well tested; it showed elevated, unsafe rates of nitrates. Chavez was surprised, as nitrates don’t change the taste or smell of the water.
“For years, the kids ran around and drank directly from the hose. It was nice and cold; we never noticed it was contaminated.”
His family stopped drinking the tap water at that point—like members of many communities in the San Joaquin Valley—and started relying on bottled water. But they still showered in the nitrate-contaminated water.
“Most of the people where I live have to buy their own water,” he says.
Then, Chavez’s wife was diagnosed cancer and died in December 2021. He can’t know for sure, but he wonders whether the nitrates played a role.
Now, Chavez thinks about leaving the area, possibly moving to be near his son in Indianapolis, but his property value hasn’t increased like it has in other parts of California. “People see that it’s near a dairy, so I doubt I’d be able to sell it,” says Chavez.
Food & Water Watch wants to see California put a moratorium on the expansion of existing mega-dairies as well as permitting for new ones. “We’re not telling them to have farmers shut their doors tomorrow, but we should not be allowing mega dairies to get even bigger, and we should not be permitting brand new mega dairies in the worst water crisis that we have seen in generations,” says Starbuck. “And that could come from the California legislature, or there are national bills that have been introduced into this Congress that would do something similar, but from a national perspective, for all factory farms.”
Starbuck doesn’t believe the fault lies with individual farmers—who have had to grow their operations within the current system. “It’s not even to outcompete your neighbors, but just to be able to stop the operation from losing money. Most dairies lose money, let’s just be honest.” For that reason, change has to come at the industry level, she adds.
Food & Water Watch is one of a number of groups advocating for a return to supply management—or quotas on the amount of milk farmers can produce—within the industry, which Starbuck says would potentially bring the cost of production in line with what farmers earn.
The Leadership Council is also monitoring and opposing growth of existing dairy operations. “We’re not advocating for eliminating the industry altogether in the Central Valley, but it can’t look the way it does,” says the Leadership Counsel’s Claiborne. “We see a need for herd size reductions and far more sustainable milk production. It just can’t come at the expense of access to drinking water. And right now, that’s what’s happening.”
Currently, the Council has its eyes on two dairies in Merced County, where the group has been monitoring nitrate levels in neighborhoods near dairies and found elevated rates: north of Fresno—one where owners are trying to add 1,700 cows—and another where they’re looking to add 2,100.
Due to provisions in the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the expansions trigger the need for CEQA reviews, and the Leadership Council provided comments on environmental documents. A coalition of Central Valley residents is also asking the State Water Resources Control Board to do a better job of overseeing the regional water board’s regulation of areas in the Central Valley and find ways to ensure that groundwater and drinking water resources are better protected.
California Dairy, Inc.—the largest dairy cooperative in the Central Valley—didn’t respond to our request for comment. And while the National Dairy Council shared its overall sustainability goals with us, it didn’t want to comment about water use in California.
“[The industry has] acknowledged that essentially all dairies in . . . the Central Valley region are polluting groundwater actively today. They’re asking for up to 35 years to try to stop polluting. But we think it needs to happen much, much faster than that.”
However, one public document—produced by a dairy industry group as part of a monitoring program required by the Regional Water Quality Board—does tell a compelling story about Big Dairy’s role in nitrate pollution in the Central Valley. It reports on wells monitored throughout the Central Valley over a seven-year period and found “a challenge of a scale that requires thoughtful, expansive solutions backed by strategic planning, sustained effort, and long-term commitment.” The report goes on to say that “even if all farming was permanently stopped, it would take many decades for groundwater nitrate-N concentrations in the production aquifer to decline below the Maximum Contamination Limit of 10 mg/L.”
“They’ve acknowledged that essentially all dairies in California or at least in the Central Valley region are polluting groundwater actively today in a way that makes the water undrinkable,” says Claiborne. “They’re asking for up to 35 years to try to stop polluting. But we think it needs to happen much, much faster than that.”
Community Water Center’s De Anda agrees. “Do I think we’re moving in the right direction? Absolutely. We’ve come a long way,” she says. “The regional water board is saying, ‘It’s not that we’re not going to regulate nitrate pollution, it’s how we’re going to do that.’ So, there has been that shift. But it’s been a very slow shift. And, in reality, residents have been exposed to this toxic water for a long time.”
Meanwhile, the Milk Producers Council is also focused on advocating for more water storage infrastructure and ways to capture the increased rain during rare flood years.
Almond orchards cover around 1.3 million acres and account for a huge percentage of the agricultural water used in California. According to Food & Water Watch’s 2021 analysis of industry data, the industry was planning to send an estimated 1.5 trillion gallons of water to irrigate the crops that year. And while dairy operations do consume more water than almond farms do, Starbuck doesn’t think the solution to the current water shortage should rest entirely on the consumer.
“People might be on the fence about whether to drink dairy milk or almond milk. But I think some of that is just infighting between the two industries, which are competing [for resources]. It also points to the fallacy that it is within the consumer’s ability to fix this problem,” she says.
As Starbuck and other advocates we spoke to see it, changing policy and holding industry to account is far more important than any consumer choice. “I’m not saying that individual actions aren’t important,” she adds, “but we are never going to protect our resources for future generations if we don’t address these huge industries that have basically been given a green light, a free pass to use as much water as they like, however they like.”
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