Western Water Woes: Dairies grapple with uncertain supplies, ever-tougher regulations

May 3, 2010 11:05 AM


If he doesn't get his surface water allotment this year, California's Mel Medeiros will spend $50,000 to pump groundwater for his dairy and forage fields.

Dark clouds unleash a cold, hard rain as dairy producer Mel Medeiros heads to his freestall barn in central California.

After three years of well-publicized drought, California has received near-normal precipitation this year.

Medeiros welcomes the April rain, but he doesn't expect it to change the state's water woes one bit.

"Sometimes it looks like a battle we'll never win,” says Medeiros, who milks 1,300 registered Holsteins near Laton, 20 miles west of Fresno. "Even if we had enough water, we still have to deal with water-quality issues.”

Medeiros' concerns echo across the Western dairy industry. Whether it's California, Arizona or Utah, the story is the same, says Utah dairy producer Brad Bateman. "Water is under pressure from developers and urban encroachment, and agriculture can't compete,” he says.

Water may be the most coveted commodity in the western U.S., where some call it the oil of the 21st century. Escalating demand for this precious resource, pushed partly by the West's growing population, has boosted water's value and triggered questions about its availability and quality. That has intensified scrutiny of dairies' manure management practices and discharges to surface and groundwater.

In addition, uncertain and expensive water supplies are directly impacting forage production and the feed supply so critical to Western dairy herds.


Christina Medeiros works full-time on water-quality compliance at her father-in-law's central California dairy. Here she samples wastewater from the dairy's freestall.
That's certainly the case in California, where water cutbacks and tough new water-quality regulations vex a dairy industry that's curbed its annual milk production by half a billion pounds since 2008.

While Medeiros grows some of his own forages and purchases hay from Utah and Oregon, he—like many of the state's dairy producers—counts on California-grown alfalfa.

This year, California's alfalfa plantings have dropped to less than 900,000 acres, a 40-year low, says Dan Putnam, University of California, Davis, forage specialist. Alfalfa, among the state's biggest agricultural water users, has been hit hard by water cutbacks as well as dairy's downturn.

As a major ingredient in feed rations, alfalfa's biggest customer is the dairy industry. This year's smaller alfalfa crop will further stress the state's beleaguered dairies.

"There's going to be a shortage of hay this year,” Medeiros says. "Dairymen are broke and they're not going to buy hay to stockpile it. They'll buy a load at a time. Come October, there's not going to be enough to get us through the winter.”

In 2008, when dairy prices soared, hay prices also rose, and Medeiros paid $265/ton for delivered hay. Last year, as dairies tightened their belts, his alfalfa price fell to $165/ton to $170/ton. This year, prices could climb when dairies can least afford it.

"We can't afford to pay much for alfalfa,” Medeiros says. "And these rains have probably wiped out some alfalfa or hurt its quality. Hay is not going to be any cheaper this year, that's for sure.”

For many Western dairies, however, water isn't just about availability or forage crops. Complying with water-quality regulations is a pressing challenge. "The cost of manure disposal is rising faster than the cost of alfalfa,” says Richard Howitt, a professor at the University of California, Davis, who's written extensively about water.

For Utah dairies, in fact, water-quality regulations are the No. 1 issue, says Mike Kohler, executive director of Dairy Producers of Utah, which represents 90% of the state's 245 dairies and 90,000 milk cows. "The problem isn't obtaining water but managing manure under an increasingly aggressive Environmental Protection Agency.”

Utah's Bateman knows firsthand what that's like. Two years ago, the EPA forced him to build a $900,000 lagoon at his family's Elberta dairy (see sidebar).

Moreover, new CAFO rules require Utah dairy lagoons to maintain storage capacity for a 100-year storm. That means 15" to 20" of rain in 24 hours. In Utah, where rainfall averages 15" to 16" a year, heavy downpours aren't a problem. Meeting the storage requirement is a major cost, about $200,000 for a 250-cow dairy, Kohler says.

Utah's dairy producers want to comply with the rules, he adds, but coming up with the cash to do it is tough. "Most dairies see water-quality regulations as manageable if there's a reasonable price for milk. But prices are so bad right now, there's not enough to pay their feed bills.”

In New Mexico, where groundwater is the major water source for humans as well as farms, the dairy industry has been negotiating with the state's Environment Department to determine new water-quality regulations.

State legislation passed last year required New Mexico's Water Quality Control Commission to identify specific requirements for discharging dairy wastewater to protect groundwater quality. The Environment Department says more than 65% of New Mexico's 150 dairies have polluted groundwater beneath their facilities.

"This is critical,” says Sharon Lombardi, executive director of Dairy Producers of New Mexico. "We understand the need to regulate and protect groundwater, but many of the proposed regulations are not based on good science.”

"Water policy is a tough issue and getting tougher,” says Jay Gordon, Washington State Dairy Federation's executive director. He operates a 160-cow dairy about 90 miles south of Seattle. "Washington has lots of water,” he says. "We just can't decide how to use it.”

In April, the state's livestock producers won a major victory when a judge dismissed a lawsuit that sought to limit the amount of groundwater producers could use for maintaining their animals. "But that's just one battle, and water is a multifront battle,” Gordon says. "Groundwater in particular tends to come back as an issue.”

Groundwater is a major water source for Washington's 249,000 milk cows. It's generally agreed that the increase in new homes near dairies in the past 30 years has resulted in declining underground aquifers.

"I consider water quality easier by several orders of magnitude than quantity, not that it's easy,” Gordon says. "We can manage to keep water clean. We haven't figured out how to create more water. We can conserve it, but then there is the fight over who gets the saved water.”

Whether the West can resolve its water problems not only depends on finding workable solutions but also on whether the public and the government are willing to acknowledge agriculture's role in the nation's well-being, dairy sources say.

"California's waste-discharge requirements will continue to drive up the cost of milk production,” says Michael Marsh, CEO of Western United Dairymen, which represents 60% of California's milk output.

Along with the need to develop additional sources of water storage, "California must decide whether agriculture is wanted in the state,” Marsh says. "If so, regulators have to look to the net benefits to society of locally produced food.”

"America has to figure out how to get past the gridlock, where nothing gets done to fix these water issues,” Gordon says. "The challenge is how to make intelligent decisions amid the fighting.”

Gordon is hopeful. His state's dairy industry has improved its relationships with Washington tribes and federal agencies. There have also been successful cleanup efforts.

And the public perception pendulum may at last be swinging the other way. "People are beginning to understand that if they want to eat, we have to preserve our own food supply,” Gordon says. 



Brad Bateman completed construction of a $900,000, EPA-mandated lagoon at his family's Utah dairy this year.

A $900,000 LAGOON

Two years ago, officials with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) came to Brad Bateman's central Utah dairy and "went ballistic,” he remembers.

Bateman and his three brothers own Utah's largest dairy. They milk 5,600 cows in a freestall operation near Elberta. For 30 years, the Bateman dairy operated without a lagoon. Instead, manure and wastewater was channeled to a cement holding tank and pumped out to a flood-level irrigation system. Then it was applied to nearly 5,000 acres of cropland. The dairy also had emergency protocols in place to handle spells of heavy rain or excess water.

Not having a lagoon "just wasn't a big deal,” Bateman says.

But EPA didn't see it that way. In 2008, the federal agency mandated that the Batemans install a lagoon for manure management. Rather than risk a fine of $17,500/day or losing their permit, the Batemans complied.

Just finished this year, the new lagoon cost $900,000 to build, "at a time when we're all going broke,” says Bateman, who's on the board of Dairy Producers of Utah.

"It's just ridiculous,” he adds. "There's no common sense. We have regulators in their 20s who are going by the book with no discussion of other, more cost-effective options. We're going to be regulated out of business. It's important as dairy producers that we get together and make our voice heard.”

Bonus content:

"Video: Mel Medeiros on California's dairy woes”

"The Future of Agricultural Water in the West”

See proposed water quality regulations for New Mexico dairies

Washington State's efforts to find better water policy 

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