Drought woes in California town highlight thirsty poultry industry

Fri Oct 2, 2015 6:40am EDT
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By Lisa Baertlein and P.J. Huffstutter

LIVINGSTON, CALIF/CHICAGO (Reuters) - Residents of Livingston, California have sharply reduced their water usage during the state’s severe drought, now in its fourth year. But this summer, when state officials ranked how water suppliers had done meeting mandated conservation goals, the blue-collar town of 13,800 came in dead last.

Responsibility for the poor showing, city officials said, lies with Livingston's biggest water user, Foster Farms, the largest poultry producer west of the Rocky Mountains.

The company’s sprawling chicken processing complex employs about 3,200 people and is the backbone of Livingston’s economy. It also sucks up roughly two-thirds of the city’s annual water supply, which has made meeting state mandated water-reduction targets virtually impossible, Livingston officials said.

While many farmers across the state have lost water allotments or faced intense pressure to cut back, California’s agricultural industrial sector has largely avoided such public and regulatory scrutiny.

Foster Farms’ Livingston operations offer a rare glimpse into that sector's water use and raise questions about whether food processors' water needs are compatible with conservation goals in drought-stricken areas.

Agricultural industrial users that draw from their own wells were asked this year to cut water use by 25 percent or limit outdoor watering to two days per week.

But according to regulators, the state's agricultural industrial users are essentially on the honor system. They haven't had their water use surveyed by state agencies in more than a decade, despite the severe drought. Because Foster Farms' plant draws from town water supplies, it was not included in that mandate, regulators said.

“There has to be a strategy for getting these big water users to set and meet targets for improving their water use,” said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, an environmental group. “I bet that we could produce more chicken per gallon if we wanted to.”   Continued...

A water protest sign is seen near Bakersfield, California, United States, July 23, 2015. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson