By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Group raises concerns over Central Valley ground water contamination
dairy 2
A report issued by the Food & Water Watch raises questions about Central Valley ground water pollution possibly caused by the combination of dairy waste a and lack of governmental regulation oversight. ABOVE: Turlock dairy, Gioletti & Sons, employs technology, waste water recycling and modern dairy practices to ensure ground water contamination is reduced to acceptable levels. - photo by JONATHAN MCCORKELL / The Journal

Food and Water Watch, a non-profit safe water and food advocacy group with offices in San Francisco, issued a 25-page report last week that raised safety concerns about the Central Valley’s ground water supply and a possible lack of oversight from the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board (CVRWQCB).

The report, titled “What’s in the Water? Industrial Dairies, Groundwater Pollution and Regulatory Failure in California’s Central Valley,” makes connections between the Central Valley’s possible ground water pollution, waste from Valley dairies and a lack of enforcement from the CVRWQCB.

Much of the report‘s statistical data was collected prior to 2007, when the CVRWQCB implemented a new set of requirements called the “General Order.” The General Order’s goal was to reduce dairy contamination of groundwater, but the report states “this report finds that enforcement of the new requirements — and the requirements themselves — are insufficient, allowing contamination to continue.”

Clay Rodgers an assistant executive officer for the CVRWQCB Fresno office in charge of dairy programs, said the General Order was a “huge, new regulation and it will take time for improved practices at the surface to take effect deep in the ground water.”

Amongst the key findings of the report, one of the more alarming concerns raised was that the CVRWQCB is failing to require dairies which have higher than acceptable contamination testing data to take further steps in order to find the causes of the contamination. Any nitrate levels above 10 milligrams per liter of water is considered contamination.

“Although the General Order explicitly allows the board to require additional monitoring, only four percent of dairies that reported nitrate levels in their own wells of between 10 and 20 milligrams per liter, and nine percent of dairies with nitrate level over 20 mg/L, received enforcement letters requiring them to implement further groundwater monitoring in the first year after reports were due,” reads the report.

Turlock Dairyman Justin Gioletti found the report to lack updated information.

“To me it is insulting to say that we (dairies) aren’t following the rules and coming into compliance. The reality is 95 percent of dairies are family owned and it is going to take some time,” he said.

Gioletti, a multi-generation dairyman, says his family spends $30,000 a year in testing just to meet requirements. The Gioletti & Sons dairy has a complete waste cleaning and recycling system with massive, football field sized holding ponds.

“If you ask me that 10 mg/L is really hard to get to, from my understanding, even if there was no dairies in the Valley, there would already still be nitrates already in the ground, I’ve heard them called legacy nitrates,” said Gioletti.

Paul Sousa, an environmental specialist for the Western United Dairymen, said that regulations implemented in 2007 “have lead to a 95 percent dairy compliance rate and it could take as much as 10 years to get accurate nitrate readings.”

 Sousa assists dairymen with moving into compliance with state, local and federal regulations.

“We have management practices in place that we know will have a positive impact in ground water quality and with the permit process it will just take some time. I think the report from Food and Water Watch is distracting from the work that dairyman are doing right,” said Sousa.

The report indicates that the opportunity for contamination by dairies is plentiful, ranging from cow feedlots, lagoons, and fertilizer spread on fields.

“From dairies, the main ground water pollutants of concern are nitrates, salts, bacteria such as E. coli, and pharmaceuticals like antibiotics and hormones,” reads the Food and Water Watch report.

Nitrate levels listed in the report were highest on dairy water wells, but those tests were done between 2000 and 2007, before the General Order was implemented.

“When the General Order was put in place it was understood that it would take several years and stages for the entire regulation to be implemented,” said Rodgers.

 All wells on all California dairies are now required to be tested and dairymen are required to submit testing results and reports to the CVRWQCB every year, and every three years CVRWQCB personnel inspect nearly every dairy in the Valley.

The General Order itself, and a 2009 dairy industry proposed revision to monitoring regulations, was criticized in the report.

“Rather than roll out more comprehensive groundwater monitoring on every dairy in the region, the industry proposed to monitor a representative sample of dairies and then extrapolate findings to other unmonitored dairies,” reads the report. 

Currently all 1,300 or so dairies in the state must submit reports on their testing data.

In conclusion the report acknowledged that, “Although the General Order is a major improvement over past policies, slow implementation, spotty enforcement and loopholes in the General Order itself mean that water quality will continue to be degraded unless additional steps are taken to protect this essential resource.”

Food and Water Watch specifically targets CVRWQCB administration in the report.

“Based on review of the files, enforcement records and other documents, the CVRWQCB appears to be prioritizing economic considerations above water quality, human health and the environment.”

Despite claims of contaminated ground water, the report fails to cite any Central Valley instances of large-scale sickness caused by contamination, even though “about 43 percent of all Californians obtain drinking water from groundwater. Half of the Central Valley’s water supply comes from groundwater sources.”

To contact Jonathan McCorkell, e-mail, or call 634-9141 ext. 2015.