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Why Are California Regulators Turning a Blind Eye to Massive Groundwater Pollution from Dairies?

In the Central Valley of California cows generate the same amount of fecal waste as a city of 21 million people, much of which goes untreated and pollutes waterways.

California's Central Valley is home to some of the state's largest dairies, and we're all quite familiar with how damaging dairy farms can be on the environment. It is responsible for about 4% of man-made GHG emissions, and in the Central Valley of California alone, cows generate the same amount of fecal waste as a city of 21 million people, much of which goes untreated and pollutes waterways. And are regulators doing anything to change this? It looks like a big fat No.

A report from Food & Water Watch written with the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance outlines how serious the contamination of groundwater systems near Central Valley dairies has become. Not only are the pollution levels frightening, but so too is the lack of care shown by the agency in charge of protecting groundwater supplies.

What's in the Water? Industrial Dairies, Groundwater Pollution and Regulatory Failure in California's Central Valley
uses previously unanalyzed data that reveals how public and environmental health is put at risk by the lax treatment of dairy farm pollution.

From the report:

  • 60 percent of the nearly 1,500 dairies in the Valley have groundwater on their property that is contaminated with nitrates above the drinking water standard.
  • 40 percent of these dairies (550 facilities) have nitrate levels at least twice the drinking water standard.
  • 85 percent of dairies in the Valley are located within 300 feet of an off-site domestic well (someone else's drinking water source), raising concerns that other Valley residents' water is contaminated.
  • Under California law, facilities that contribute to a violation of a water quality standard are subject to cleanup and abatement orders and can be fined. There have been no dairies fined for contributing to high nitrate levels in groundwater in the Valley and no cleanup and abatement orders issued.
  • 71 dairies failed to turn in part or all of the documentation required by the new regulations in the first year after they were implemented, but none of these dairies was fined.

According to the report, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board (CVRWQCB) never implemented existing groundwater regulations for dairies until 2007, and even now is not enforcing what California Sportfishing Protection Alliance is calling inadequate regulations that won't stop existing pollution nor prevent future pollution.

Food & Water Watch writes, "In the file of one dairy - White River Dairy in the San Joaquin Valley town of Ducor - researchers found nine inspections and six Notices of Violation that the dairy was illegally discharging waste into a river that fed a groundwater aquifer. Yet according to the file, the problem is still unresolved. Twenty-seven years after the first complaint was brought against White River Dairy by a neighbor and 17 years after the first Board inspection identified a violation of state and federal water quality laws, no fines have ever been issued."

The pollution of groundwater sources is obviously difficult on the environment and ecosystems struggle to deal with the chemicals leaking into water supplies. However, it is also worrying for residents whose wells have been polluted by the dairy farms. It's no small matter when according to the report, "85% of dairies reported that they were located within 300 feet of an off-site domestic (household) well."

Elanor Starmer, lead author of the report, states, "Half of the Central Valley's drinking water comes from groundwater sources, but Governor Brown has been more focused on high-tech tunnels to siphon the Delta's water to Southern California than groundwater that means life or death to Central Valley residents... We're calling on the governor and state legislators to step up and protect people's health."

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