Jackson Browne Was Right

Two-headed Calf Exhibit, Idaho State Historical Museum. Boise, Idaho

Oh people, look around you 
The signs are everywhere
You’ve left it for somebody other than you
To be the one to care
You’re lost inside your houses
There’s no time to find you now
Your walls are burning and your towers are turning
I’m going to leave you here and try to get down to the sea somehow

Jackson Brown, “Rock Me on the Water,” from Saturate Before Using, 1971

Humankind’s abuse of the only habitable planet we know is continuing unabated. Anyone with the IQ of a planarian knows it’s true. But, as Jackson Browne told us 51 (!) years ago, most folks seem to content to let someone else “be the one to care.”1 In a summer that has seen record floods, record heat, record droughts, record wildfires and record windstorms, it should be clear that nothing, absolutely nothing, is more important than getting anthropogenic climate change under control. And we can only do so by dealing with greenhouse gas emissions immediately.

But WC isn’t going to write about just greenhouse gas emissions in this post. Instead, this post is about the Magic Valley, a part of south-central Idaho centered on Twin Falls, which was transformed from sagebrush steppe to industrial agricultural by irrigation with water removed from the Snake River and the Snake River Plain aquifer. It’s a place where humankind has metaphorically crapped in its kitchen.

Today, that area is the home to more than three-quarters of a million dairy cows. Here’s a factoid about dairy cows: each cow produces 127 pounds of runny manure, seven days a week, 365 days a year. That’s a total volume of manure equal to about 50,000 tons of manure a day. No matter how you think of it, that’s just a mind-boggling amount of of shit. The manure is packed with chemicals like nitrates, phosphates, antibiotics, herbicides and pesticides, as well as E. coli bacteria. The Snake River Plain, where that manure is excreted, is built of fractured volcanic rock. Not too far down in that rock is the aquifer, water upon which every community in the middle Snake River Plain depends for drinking, bathing and all domestic uses. All that heavily contaminated cow shit is percolating down into the aquifer. Levels of phosphates, measured where the aquifer emerges from the walls of the Snake River Canyon, show phosphates have tripled over the last three years. Some of the percolation is from unlined sewage lagoon. Some is from manure spread across fields as fertilizer. Some if from the mountains – WC isn’t indulging in hyperbole here – mountains of manure. Mountain ranges of manure.

As dreadful as the manure volumes are, that’s not the only source of contamination by the dairy industry. All this dairy cows have to be fed. That takes corn, hay and alfalfa, all water-intensive crops that take, literally, tons of fertilizer, and fertilizer, of course, is mostly nitrates and phosphates. Too much of that fertilizer also percolates down into the aquifer.

Irrigation from the Snake River is inadequate for the volume of feed stocks required. So the dairy farmers have turned to the aquifer. As water is pumped out of the aquifer, its volume decreases, and as an inescapable consequence contamination concentration increases.

The Snake River enters Idaho from Wyoming as a world class fly fishery, with waters are clean as any remaining in the Lower 48. The Snake River leaves Idaho a grossly contaminated mess, plagued by cyanobacteria blooms that fill the water with toxins so deadly that if your dog swims in the Snake River your dog may very well die. If you drink it, even a small amount, you may get quite sick.

Welcome to Idaho. Don’t drink the water.

It’s not even really the Snake River by the time it gets to the Magic Valley. The Snake pretty much ends at Milner Dam, just east of Burley, Idaho. All of its water is diverted for agriculture by that point, used for the “magic” in the Magic Valley.. The waters flowing in the Snake River Canyon below Milner Dam are from springs, the inflow of the aquifer as it reaches the walls of the Snake River canyon.

None of this is news. the High Country News, back in August 2014, in a prescient article titled “Idaho’s Sewer System Is the Snake River,” warned everyone this was happening. Eight years later, it’s only gotten worse, with the total number of dairy cows up 150%.

So what happens to the 13 billion pounds of milk that all those dairies produce each year? Some of it goes to cheese, some to yoghurt – the largest yoghurt plant in the world is in the Magic Valley – but two-thirds of it is dried and shipped overseas. Mostly to China. While the labels say “dried milk solids,” the real export is Idaho’s water quality and too much of Idaho’s water.

The nitrate levels in some Magic Valley domestic water wells already exceed safety standards. Excess nitrates can be carcinogenic, cause very serious birth defects and long term health problems.

All those diary cows also fart. A lot. And those farts are high in methane content. The manure exudes methane as well. And methane, of course, is a powerful greenhouse gas, forty times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Those 750,000 dairy cows are also significant contributors to anthropomorphic climate change.

The bottom line is that dairy, at least industrial dairy, doesn’t belong in the Snake River Plain and is not just unsustainable but toxic. Not toxic at some date in the future; it’s toxic now and more toxic every year. Will the Idaho Legislature do anything about these existential threats to their state? Ask Jackson Browne.

1 Yes, WC is aware that Jackson Browne, never one to let a possible double entendre pass unremarked, has said in concert may times that this song is about making love on a waterbed. Spoiler Alert: It’s not.

5 thoughts on “Jackson Browne Was Right

  1. So how many vegans out there? Although with eight or so billion people on the planet I’m not sure if everyone suddenly became herbivores it would matter much now.


  2. Yes, the industrialization of livestock production is terribly polluting (and has led most Americans to an unhealthy diet). And while cows do fart methane, they burp even more.


  3. One of dad’s favorite sayings was “It’s a dirty bird that craps in its own nest” We just watched a pair of Saffron Finches raise 3 little ones in a gourd we hung outside a bedroom window. With every mouthful of food they brought in to the open beaks, they hauled a mouthful of poo out. Some critters are better “house” keepers than others. Our industrialized culture has become more pooey than we know how to deal with. Dirty birds.

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