Kern County is moving forward on a new application process for nearly 30 new dairies and 214,000 cows. Although dairy supporters argue that the dairies would be good for the local economy, the cows bring with them tons of worry over public health, air quality, ground and surface water quality, and quality of life.

Kern County already has 55 dairies and 297,000 dairy cows, and public concern about the industry’s environmental impacts has grown in recent years. In late August, the Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to reject a two-year moratorium and adopt a plan to examine the implications of adding the new cows. Although the proposed moratorium was designed to give the county sufficient time for reviewing applications, the process the board approved could have a similar effect. It is widely understood that there is no guarantee that all of the proposed dairies and cows will get approved, said Ted James, Kern County planning director.

The approved plan separates the proposed dairies into two groups, each with its own environmental review. The first group of eight dairies, owing to their advanced preparation, would be included in an environmental impact report that would serve as a program and a project-level environmental review. All others would be lumped into a second project-level EIR. Under the board’s decision, the two studies may proceed concurrently, although the second EIR must wait for programmatic questions to be resolved in the first document.

In June, a flood of dairy applications began pouring into Kern County, largely in anticipation of a moratorium or other potential limits. The applicants’ intent was simply to hold their place in line. In one month’s time, the county received applications for 13 dairies and 114,000 cows. Since then, the number has grown to 29 applications.

Where are these cows coming from? For years, San Bernardino County was the largest dairy county in the state, with the Chino-based San Bernardino County Dairy Preserve’s 400 dairies. Because of the dairies’ conflicts with the rapidly urbanizing area, the county opted to phase out the preserve (see CP&DR Local Watch, June 2002, March 1999). These dairies have to go somewhere, and many of them have chosen the Southern San Joaquin Valley. Tulare and Kings counties, just north of Kern County, have already completed extensive studies of dairies’ cumulative impacts and tightened dairy development regulations.

One of the biggest dots on Kern County’s dairy map is Wasco. All eight of the applicants in the first EIR, along with their 76,000 cows, have proposed sites within three miles of the small city about 25 miles northwest of Bakersfield.

In the past in Kern County, only dairies that were proposed within three miles of urban areas were subject to environmental review. In February 2000, largely in response to the controversial Borba Dairy application for a 24,000-cow operation, the county formed a Dairy Technical Advisory Committee. What followed were new restrictions on dairy siting, a California Environmental Quality Act lawsuit, and ultimately a court decision that mandated EIRs and conditional use permits.

Around that same time, the Vanderham Dairy was proposed within two miles of the City of Shafter. Wasco and Shafter moved to establish buffers but dropped their efforts to get behind a more comprehensive approach from state Senator Dean Florez (D-Shafter). However, Florez’s bill, SB 707, failed. So, in the November election, Wasco will vote on an advisory measure for a 10-mile buffer. The intent is to formalize the public’s concern and force the county to take the city seriously, said Wasco City Councilman Larry Pearson.

Kern County Supervisor Ray Watson, however, said Wasco needs to show that its proposed buffer zone is not arbitrary. He said that Wasco has not proven 10 miles is necessary to protect people from dairies’ impacts and that the Board of Supervisors would be unlikely to impose such a buffer. But Pearson contended that although the idea of a large buffer may not be politically viable right now, the county might take the proposal more seriously come January, when Michael Rubio replaces Supervisor Steve Parra, a buffer opponent.

Wasco officials and dairy opponents are concerned about the ability of “factory farms” to disperse their waste effectively. Typically, dairies spread manure over acres of cropland as fertilizer. When done properly, this technique provides soil nutrients without harming groundwater quality. However, some observers contend that without an adequate dairy inspection plan and proper environmental planning, dairies overload the land and contaminate groundwater with nitrates.

The more visible problem involves dairies’ cumulative impact on air quality in the valley. “The county is already classified ‘serious non attaining’ in regards to particulate matter, and ‘extreme non-attaining’ in regards to ozone,’” said Seyed Sadredin, executive officer for the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. Dairies produce by-products that increase both particulate matter and ozone problems.

Other dairy by-products, such as odors and flies, affect the health and comfort of nearby residents. Caroline Farrell, an attorney for the Center for Race, Poverty, and the Environment, said factory farms are not like typical agriculture and ought to be regulated more stringently.

Of course, not everyone sees things from the same perspective. David Albers, an attorney who represents many local dairies, pointed to the construction, jobs, tax base, and other benefits of dairies. Construction of these facilities costs about $3,000 per cow, and dairies require one year-round employee per hundred head, he said.

The industry is skeptical of Kern County’s new environmental review process. Not only does it have to relinquish control over the process to the county, the industry must pay all EIR costs aside from $275,000 that the State Water Resource Control Board granted. Unlike Planning Director James, Albers believes the process will take longer than 12 to 18 months and that it is possible the county may not issue permits for up to five years.

However, dairy representatives said the process is better than a moratorium. Paul Martin, director of environmental services for the Western United Dairymen, said that a moratorium could have delayed even existing dairies’ plans for expansion. At least all applications are being accepted and will be processed concurrently, he said. Martin said the dairy industry wants a clear set of rules and an end to the uncertainty.

Ted James, Kern County, (661) 862-8616.
Caroline Farrell, Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment, (661) 720-9140.
Seyed Sadredin, San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, (661) 326-6900.
David Albers, Albers, Barnes & Kohler, (661) 716-3900.
Paul Martin, Western United Dairymen, (209) 527-6453.
Ray Watson, Kern County supervisor, (661) 868-3601.
Larry Pearson, Wasco city councilman, (661) 758-7200.