A mega-dairy is transforming Arizona’s aquifer and farming lifestyles

Minnesota’s Riverview Dairy has deep pockets and long straws.

Thousands of dairy cows crowd the Coronado Dairy’s feedlot in the Kansas Settlement area near Sunizona, Arizona. Roberto (Bear) Guerra/High Country News

In the winter of 2018, Laura Lynn moved out of her mobile home in Sunizona, an unincorporated community in southeast Arizona. After more than six years, she was tired of hauling water for drinking and bathing, and she couldn’t afford to drill a well — certainly not one deep enough to survive the impending squeeze once a nearby mega-dairy began to operate.

Lynn’s story epitomizes the challenges local residents are facing over the ongoing water crisis in this rural community, a problem that worsens every year and that no person or agency has figured out how to solve. She is one of hundreds of people, mostly low- to middle-income, living in a high-desert landscape whose groundwater is rapidly disappearing as water is pumped to grow alfalfa, corn, nuts, wheat and barley.

But the greatest pressure on the region’s aquifer comes from Riverview LLP, a Minnesota-based dairy company whose groundwater pumping is seen by many as the primary cause of their drying wells.

Far away in Kerkhoven, Minnesota, farmers Jim and LeeAnn VanDerPol have watched as their community lost many of its residents following decades of shrinking agricultural margins and increased corporate consolidation in the livestock sectors. Their former neighbors have been replaced by the five huge Riverview facilities within 10 miles of their house. In Chokio, Minnesota, about an hour away, locals successfully fought to keep Riverview from building a 9,200-cow dairy, citing concerns about pollution and groundwater decline.

Smaller dairy farmers nationwide have weathered years of milk prices below the cost of production that culminated in an industry-wide economic crisis. Now they face a new adversary: mega-dairies, or dairy CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations). In Franklin, southwest of Minneapolis, James Kanne struggles to hang onto his small family dairy even as mega-dairies like Riverview compete for the few remaining milk processors.

The people we spoke with in Minnesota and Arizona are 1,500 miles apart, connected only by the ever-growing presence and power of Riverview. But their communities have much in common: The local industry and resources have been monopolized by a deep-pocketed entity. The groundwater is being depleted and polluted. Incessant traffic, dust, lights and the stench of livestock cause home values to plummet and strain the emotional ties locals have to the places they call home.

Read the rest of the article at our website: https://www.hcn.org/issues/53.8/agriculture-a-mega-dairy-is-transforming-arizonas-aquifer-and-farming-lifestyles

Working to inform and inspire people — through in-depth journalism — to act on behalf of the West’s diverse natural and human communities.