Although Wisconsin may be home to the "cheeseheads," California is actually the nation's largest dairy state. In fact, with annual production at $3.6 billion and rising, the dairy industry is the largest agricultural sector in California. But these are not the best of times for the industry. The Chino dairy preserve in San Bernardino County, the center of Southern California's dairy industry for decades, is pegged for urban development (see CP&DR Local Watch, March 2000). And building new facilities in the dairy owners' top choice for relocation — the southern San Joaquin Valley — is not as easy as it was a few years ago. Several environmental organizations and Attorney General Bill Lockyer have filed suits intended to force more extensive environmental review of dairy projects. Also, local government officials are feeling both the legal and political heat that accompanies dairies these days. Tulare County (population 370,000) is the state's largest dairy county with about 300,000 cows at 300 dairies. But the permitting of new and expanded facilities has nearly ground to a halt during the last year. The county now has about 50 pending applications, roughly half of which are for new dairies, according to Mary Beatie, Tulare County Resource Management Agency assistant director in charge of current planning. A giant dairy complex proposed in Kings County has been dropped during a second round of litigation, and two large dairies proposed near Bakersfield have become a political hot potato in Kern County. Madera County approved two large dairies in July, but environmentalists and the attorney general's office were watching closely. "It's not just an issue with us, it's an issue on the national scope as well," said Caroline Farrell, directing attorney in the Delano office of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment (CRPE). "There is a growing awareness that dairies and large-scale agriculture can have an environmental impact." Debate centers on Tulare County A half dozen people recently urged the Tulare County Board of Supervisors to speed up the pace of permit processing. The testimony came during the board's public comment period, so supervisors took no action. But Board Chairman Bill Sanders indicated his position when he said the county was "being held hostage in issuing the permits because of environmental terrorism." John Labandeira, a representative of the Western United Dairymen's Association who addressed supervisors, said, "I think the county needs to move forward. … We don't know what the exact agenda is behind these environmental groups. But what they have done is basically stop the whole industry." Last year, the attorney general's office filed lawsuits claiming Tulare County did not comply with CEQA when it granted permits for two new dairies. The county settled the lawsuits, in part, by agreeing to prepare a program environmental impact report, a first for dairies in California. In April, the county adopted the program EIR and a plan for handling dairies, but CRPE quickly filed a lawsuit over both documents. Although no restraining order has been issued, using the documents as a basis for issuing new permits is a risk, Beatie said. Despite the slowdown at the planning counter, Tulare County continues to receive applications. "I think the dairymen feel compelled to get in line," Beatie said. "Time is really of the essence for a lot of these dairymen because they are tied up with long-term leases that are about to expire." Kings County, just north of Tulare County, has continued to issue permits. In April, the county approved a conditional use permit for a 6,000-acre, 47,700-cow dairy complex outside Corcoran for J.G. Boswell that could accommodate 47,700 cows. The county had approved the same project a year earlier, but CRPE filed a lawsuit to force an EIR on the project. The county completed the EIR and added conditions to the permit, but CRPE filed a new lawsuit in May that claims the EIR is inadequate and that air quality mitigations are lacking. In a move that appears to worry and anger both farmers and local officials, the Sierra Club has joined the CRPE lawsuit as part of its nationwide focus on large-scale livestock farms. All the controversy apparently affected Boswell, which announced in late July it was giving up the fight and would not pursue the project. In Kern County, a proposal from James and George Borba to build two 14,000-cow dairies a few miles southwest of Bakersfield, has drawn sharp protest from Bakersfield residents worried about dust and fumes. County supervisors have not decided on the application, but they have formed a technical advisory committee to make recommendations. The Borbas' difficulties are causing some dairy operators to look farther north for a more favorable political environment. They might find it in Madera County, which in July approved two dairies containing 9,000 and 5,000 cows apiece near Chowchilla. The county relied on mitigated negative declarations in approving both facilities, said Dave Merchen, Madera County senior planner. The county did impose requirements such as ordering one dairy to export all of its solid manure and reducing the herd size if certain concerns arise. Although it filed no comments, the attorney general's office did request the environmental documents for both projects, he said. "These [dairies] are big in comparison to the dairies that were approved before '94 or '95, but they are consistent with the applications we've gotten in recent years," Merchen said. Saving the water and air The increasing size of dairies stirs much of the concern. Until recently, California's 2000 dairies managed herds that numbered in the hundreds of cows. Nowadays, dairy operators, whether they are moving north from San Bernardino County or simply expanding existing Central Valley farms, feed and milk many thousands of cows in one location. Creation of "factory farms" is the trend in most livestock farming. That worries environmentalists. They fear that the widespread pollution of Chino Basin groundwater attributable to dairies could be repeated in the Central Valley, where groundwater tables are often high. Beatie contended Tulare County has a more progressive approach to dairies than most jurisdictions. It has required conditional use permits since the 1970s and has worked with University of California experts for 20 years in implementing formal guidelines, she said. But CRPE's Farrell argued that Tulare County's program EIR lacks an adequate analysis of cumulative water impacts and does not properly address air pollution mitigation. Tulare and other counties need to get a better handle on air pollution in the form of dust, ammonia and reactive organic gasses, and on surface and groundwater pollution from manure, she said. "Our purpose is not to get the Central Valley clear of dairies and to stop them from coming in. It is to ensure that they are studied and monitored … and if they can be mitigated, to ensure that the mitigations are carried out. It comes down to management practices." Dairy management techniques receive a great deal of attention these days from regulatory agencies and UC, said Allen Dusault, senior project manager for the nonprofit group Sustainable Conservation, which helps dairy operators implement the best available practices. "None of these programs are simple. In most cases they cost money and require training. And farmers have a lot to do," Dusault said. Labandeira, of the dairymen's association, said his groups' members are "very concerned about the environment." Increasingly, they attend classes to learn about new management practices and legal requirements, he said. But the farmers are reluctant to plow large amounts of money into newfangled technology until it is proven and environmental standards are firm, he said. And further study of dairies' impacts is pointless, he said. "You're not going to do a more detailed report than the Boswells and the Borbas have done, so why spend the money?" he said. However, with such a large industry at stake, it is clear that all sides are going to spend quite a bit more money in the near future. Contacts: Mary Beatie, Tulare County Resource Management Agency, (559) 733-6291. Dave Merchen, Madera County Planning Department, (559) 675-7821. Caroline Farrell, Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, (661) 720-9140. John Labandeira, Western United Dairymen's Association, (559) 285-9126. Allen Dusault, Sustainable Conservation, (415) 977-0380.