California Dairy Uses Lots of Water. Here’s Why It Matters.


When we image California agriculture, we are inclined to assume of almond and citrus orchards and the huge tracts of strawberry and lettuce fields that we are able to see from the highways dividing the western half of the state from the east.

But dairy is, the truth is, king.

There are an estimated 1.7 million cows residing on dairy farms in California, and the trade introduced in $7.5 billion in 2020, together with $2 billion in export gross sales.

And as a result of most individuals within the state don’t see the abundance of dairy farms—most of them operate like feedlots surrounded by fields of feed crops akin to alfalfa and corn rising close by—they is probably not conscious of the truth that they use thousands and thousands of gallons of water a day.

As the local weather disaster ramps up, California is dealing with its third consecutive yr of drought after its driest winter situations in 100 years, and everybody within the state has grown more and more reliant on a quickly shrinking amount of groundwater. Advocates say it’s a superb time to take a better have a look at the water use behind your milk (and butter, cheese, and so on.), how the large-scale dairy trade has impacted groundwater within the state, in addition to the way it impacts low-income Californians, communities of colour, and small-scale farms.

How Much Water Does the California Dairy Industry Use?

All dairy manufacturing requires an abundance of water. The animals drink it, however it’s additionally used to chill the milk, preserve the dairies clear, and funky off cows within the heat months. And it’s wanted to irrigate the alfalfa and different feed crops.

In a latest white paper, the advocacy nonprofit Food & Water Watch estimates that it takes 142 million gallons of water a day to take care of the dairy cows in California. “That’s greater than sufficient water to supply the every day really helpful water utilization for each resident of San Jose and San Diego mixed,” reads the paper.

The California dairy trade makes use of “greater than sufficient water to supply the every day really helpful water utilization for each resident of San Jose and San Diego mixed.”

The trade takes pleasure in the truth that a lot of the water used inside dairies will get recycled and used to spray manure on crops as fertilizer (as a approach of managing the big portions of waste these dairies produce). The California Milk Producers Council additionally just lately pointed to a yet-to-be-validated examine that modeled the water circulate on and off a typical 1,000-cow dairy and located that whereas it makes use of 112 acre-feet a yr, it “exported” 98 acre-feet within the type of spraying it on crops.

This round logic—the concept that water use doesn’t rely as a result of it’s then used on crops to supply milk—isn’t new both. In a 2019 op-ed, Geoff Vanden Heuvel, director of regulatory and financial affairs on the Dairy Producer’s Council, wrote on the group’s web site, “the precise footprint of your dairy itself—the corrals, the milking barn, the feed storage pads and feed alleys—have zero consumptive water use. The solely water that’s misplaced on a dairy operation is within the milk that’s offered off the farm and the water contained in physique of the cow when it’s shipped off the dairy for culling.”

The trade additionally factors to its water effectivity enchancment over time. Researchers at University of California, Davis (funded by the American Dairy Science Association), discovered that the water used per gallon of milk dropped by 88 p.c within the 50 years between 1964 and 2014.

“That’s often because the crop yields have gone up a lot within the final 60 years,” mentioned Ermias Kebreab, affiliate dean for international engagement within the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at U.C. Davis. “Because of genetic enchancment and breeding, we’ve seen an enormous improve in yields.”

“The trade likes to tout its effectivity, which I don’t disagree with. The factor that the trade doesn’t usually acknowledge is that whenever you improve effectivity for dairy cows, you additionally improve [overall] water use.”

However, the amount of milk being produced within the state has additionally elevated in that point. “The trade likes to tout its effectivity, which I don’t disagree with. The factor that the trade doesn’t usually acknowledge is that whenever you improve effectivity for dairy cows, you additionally improve [overall] water use,” mentioned Michael Claiborne, a senior legal professional at Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, a community-based advocacy group positioned within the Central Valley.

“You must take into accounts how rather more quantity is being created. So, the precise tally for water use is much extra monumental that than it ever has been,” says Amanda Starbuck, a researcher and coverage analyst for Food & Water Watch.

“And these positive aspects we’ve seen in dairy manufacturing are resulting from the truth that now we have newer [dairy cow] breeds that develop quicker,” provides Starbuck. “We put milk cows via cycles of being pregnant and lactation a lot faster than we had prior to now, and cows stay shorter lives as a result of of that, and lower-quality lives. They are bred to supply as a lot milk as they probably can earlier than they’re actually taken out to pasture.”

How Did Big Dairy Get So Big in California?

Dairy manufacturing within the state goes again to the 18th century, however the amount of mega-dairies that now function all through the Central Valley is a comparatively latest phenomenon. Warmer climate permits for dairies that don’t must preserve their animals indoors for a number of months at a time, and that truth—mixed with the velocity at which alfalfa may be grown within the sunny elements of the West—have facilitated a large shift within the trade.

In states like New York, Vermont, and Wisconsin, the place many small-scale producers are closing up store at an alarming fee, dairy operations historically graze their cattle on pasture for a lot of the yr. The mega-dairies which have sprung up in states like California, Oregon, Arizona, and Idaho in latest many years, then again, are primarily confinement-based, or what they name “dry lot” operations.

A dairy feedlot in Arizona.

A dairy feedlot in Arizona.

Meanwhile, small and medium dairies within the state have additionally been shutting down. From 1997 to 2017, California misplaced 60 p.c of its dairies with fewer than 500 cows.

The bulk of the mega dairies are positioned within the state’s Central Valley. Tulare County, the highest dairy county within the state, introduced in additional than $1.8 billion in dairy gross sales in 2020; it’s generally identified that the county is dwelling to extra cows than folks.

What Does It Mean for Water?

As drought situations have radically lowered the amount of floor water that’s out there for agriculture, mega-dairies are pumping an increasing number of groundwater to satisfy their wants.

Their follow of spraying their manure on close by crops additionally sends nitrogen—within the type of nitrates—again into the soil, the place it will definitely leaches into the groundwater. This is compounded by the nitrogen air pollution from different fertilizer working off crop fields and municipal sewage techniques.

“It’s a widespread subject all through the valley. Up to 40 p.c of home wells (and much more in some areas) are impacted by nitrate ranges which might be above the secure consuming water requirements,” says Claiborne.

“We say water flows towards cash and energy. And so, you possibly can simply see that within the center of a drought who has entry to that [drilling] and people deeper wells.”

The well being impacts of nitrate-polluted water are well-documented. A 2019 examine discovered that nitrate air pollution in U.S. consuming water may trigger over 12,000 circumstances of most cancers annually. And that’s not the one identified well being affect; elevated nitrates in water have additionally been linked to miscarriages, fetal deformations, and a lethal blood dysfunction referred to as blue child syndrome.

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