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.
How Much Water Does the California Dairy Industry Use?
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 enormous 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 that 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.”
How Did Big Dairy Get So Big in California?
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.
What Does It Mean for Water?
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.