Merced County Times Newspaper
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Water at center of dispute over Planada dairy expansion 

Some residents in Planada are calling on county officials to block a proposed expansion of a dairy.

Merced County is currently in the process of deciding whether to allow the Hillcrest Dairy just north of the town to expand its herd from 8,050 cows to 9,750 cows. Some residents are saying that the expansion would make current problems with bad smells and flies worse, as well as threaten the community’s supply of groundwater.

“California’s going through another drought and Merced County is still in a severely overdrafted situation with their water supply,” said Planada resident David Rodriguez at a recent Board of Supervisors meeting. “When one cow uses 30-plus gallons of water a day, that is a deep concern.”

The matter is still in the process of review, and has yet to come before the Board of Supervisors. But it will ultimately be their call as to whether or not the expansion with the dairy moves forward.

The dairy was constructed in 2002 and at the time was only permitted for 3,885 cows. It received a permit in 2012 that raised the number of cows to 8,050, and 10 years later it is seeking to expand once again.

The argument for approving the expansion rests on the overall economic benefit to the county as well as the town of Planada. Merced County’s top export is milk, valued at around $1 billion annually. Ed Hoekstra, the dairy owner, is a donor to local schools in Planada and supporters say the expansion will benefit the community as a whole. But it’s not clear how much the expansion would actually benefit the town economically. Modern dairies are largely automated, and Hillcrest only employs around 50 workers. According to a county report, the expansion wouldn’t result in more jobs at the dairy.

Former County Supervisor and dairyman John Pedrozo spoke out in favor of the expansion at a meeting at the start of November while his son Josh, a current Supervisor, looked on from the dais. Board Chairman Lloyd Pareira and Supervisor Scott Silveira also come from dairy backgrounds.

“It really hit a nerve. I’ve been born and raised in the dairy business. It’s not like it was back in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s because we’ve gone to the mega-dairies,” he said. “Now you have these people that are complaining about the smell and the methane gas … What are these farmers supposed to do?

“[Hoekstra] wants to do an expansion, not to benefit himself only but to benefit his way of life and help the community … Dairy is still the No.1 commodity in Merced County,” Pedrozo said.

“When I hear these people talk about the smell … I can tell you the smell every once and a while does bother me, but it goes away,” said Pedrozo. “We are the San Joaquin Valley. We feed the world.”

But critics are not convinced. They point to an environmental report prepared by the County of Merced, which found a number of “potentially significant impacts” as a result of the expansion.

The town already has a problem with manure stench and the flies that the manure attracts. Rodriguez said that residents are forced to close their windows at certain times during the day otherwise their houses are filled with the smell.

The deeper concerns revolve around water, or rather the scarcity of it in a time of drought and rising temperatures due to climate change. Ninety percent of the milk we drink is water, and one lactating dairy cow consumes around 30 gallons of water a day, even more if it’s hot outside. The Hillcrest proposal would raise the number of milk cows at the dairy by 1,000, which would require around 30,000 extra gallons of water per day, coming out to nearly 11 million gallons of water per year. That’s not including the water requirements for the old herd, or the remainder of the new herd, about 1,300 young heifers who are not yet old enough to get pregnant and start producing milk. Non-lactating cows require less water per day.

There are also concerns about the added methane released into the air from cow burps, as well as the nitrates from fertilizer that can seep into drinking water. Water samples collected at the dairy in 2020 showed that one out of nine samples reported a nitrate level higher than the California maximum contaminant limit of 10 milligrams per liter. Samples of Planada’s own  groundwater wells in 2018 and 2019 showed a nitrate level of 5 parts per million, half of the California maximum limit. However, a 2020 sample showed nitrate levels had decreased to 3 ppm.

“With the stench of manure filtering through our town, nitrates and methane affecting our environment and Planada being designated as a severely disadvantaged community, I implore the Board of Supervisor to deny the future expansion of the Hillcrest Dairy,” Rodriguez said.

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