Oregon, like the rest of the West, is staring down a dry summer. In an executive order, Gov. Kate Brown instructed state agencies to trim water use in preparation for what can only be called a mega-drought.
Across the West, residents hunker down in anticipation of water restrictions and in some regions farmers have started reevaluating the viability of water-intensive crops. In the Klamath Basin in southern Oregon, indigenous communities are facing the potential demise of sacred and federally protected endangered fish, and irrigation water has been shut off due to the lowest levels the river has ever seen.
Yet, in Oregon’s northeastern Morrow County, the state may welcome one of the largest and most notorious guzzlers of water — a mega-dairy. Easterday Dairy would bring 28,000 cows to the same land as the former Lost Valley Farm in Boardman, joining four other mega-dairies in Morrow County.
The Easterdays’ multimillion dollar fraud case involving hundreds of thousands of imaginary cattle and subsequent bankruptcies put a pause on the permitting process for the dairy until Oregon’s Department of Agriculture found that Cody Easterday — listed as the owner of Easterday Dairy on the permit — passed on ownership to his son, Cole.
The original application was withdrawn per ODA’s July 15 deadline, but a decision on the subsequent permit submission from Cole is still pending. Although the financial troubles affecting the Easterdays’ various companies call their ability to responsibly manage a mega-dairy into question, clearly warranting denial of the dairy’s permit, yet another pressing case for denial stares us in the face — our persistent drought. Easterday Dairy’s permit application estimates its water usage would average approximately 20 million gallons per day.
Twenty-two of Oregon’s 36 counties have requested drought declarations from Brown this year. Morrow was granted its request and is under a drought declaration. As crops and pastures wither, the threat of devastating wildfires grows. According to the National Drought Mitigation Center, county residents will likely have a “significantly shortened” window for water access this year. These conditions represent a “new normal” for the area, and will undoubtedly worsen in time if the proposed Easterday mega-dairy is granted a permit.
Morrow County’s mega-dairies source their water from local groundwater and the Columbia River, but both are finite resources. Migrating fish depend on the river’s flow, and experts have said these fish need as much water from the Columbia as it has left from April until September.
As we wade further into a summer that only promises to get drier and hotter, this water will become infinitely more precious and quite possibly scarcer than ever before. Several parts of Morrow County are already designated as critical groundwater areas in response to serious groundwater decline.
Mega-dairies routinely use untold gallons of water in water-stressed regions. Despite the drought, Oregon agencies continue to elevate the interests of industrial agriculture over the basic needs of communities and ecosystems to access clean water.
ODA must deny the proposed Easterday Dairy’s permit. Our water is too limited and too precious to waste it on mega-dairies in a drought.