Here’s a place where long-range thinking and interests bump up against short-term.
The long range in the Idaho Magic Valley looks partly like this: Two centuries ago, animal life in the south-central Idaho desert was sparse; big animals were few, and humans, not large in number, passed through rather than stay for long. About a century-and-a-quarter ago, humans figured out how to effectively redirect water, mainly from the Snake River, and use it to grow crops at scale, changing much of the region from desert to cropland — the “magic” of the regional name.
As the water was limited, so was the ability to keep on expanding. Other, less-thirsty uses of water were expanded to enhance use of the territory, and one of those was cattle production. To a point, the cattle activity, like the crops, largely could go across the region without diminishing the area’s ability to replenish itself. But there are limits.
Cattle were grazed in the valley a century and more ago, but in small numbers. They grew gradually, and by the mid-1980s the population of the cattle — about 75,000 then — began to approach the number of people in the area.
Concerns began to be raised, as concentrated animal feeding operations ballooned.
A dozen years ago, when the valley’s cattle population was estimated at 341,000, the Twin Falls Times-News wrote about it: “Last week at a Jerome County commissioners’ meeting concerning an application for an 18,555-cow feedlot, small-dairy owner Blaine Miller asked commissioners to consider a moratorium on new dairies in the county. In Cassia County earlier this year, a group of small-operation farmers joined forces to fight a permit application for a large dairy.”
But the growth continued.
Today, the Magic Valley is home to about 417,000 head of cattle, more than twice the number of people in the area, each of which not only consume water but also leave their waste product on, and seeping into, the ground. Those cattle produce much more manure than is produced by the vastly larger human population of New York City.
This came back to attention last week with release of a report by the Idaho Conservation League warning that the groundwater in the area — mainly meaning the Snake River Plain Aquifer, a source of drinking water for 300,000 people in Idaho — is becoming contaminated with nitrate and phosphorus pollution. The problem is not extreme yet, but the trend lines aren’t favorable.
“The available groundwater quality data, while limited, clearly indicates that nitrate and phosphorus concentrations are well above natural background levels in certain portions of the ESPA,” the report notes. “These elevated concentrations are directly linked to human activities on the Snake River Plain — specifically, waste generated by large concentrated animal feeding operations and overapplication of fertilizer on agricultural fields. These concentrations are projected to continue to rise for the foreseeable future with likely worsening human health risks.”
The ICL added, “These water quality issues will increasingly have more severe implications for Idaho’s ability to meet water quality standards, manage population growth and protect the health of Idahoans.”
The difficulty is in large part economic, because those cattle and the industries they’re linked to increasingly have become the economic engine of south-central Idaho, even more than all those magic plant crops. Two generations ago, dairy was a big industry in that part of Idaho, but now it’s enormous. Cheese producers are increasingly important in the area. A yogurt producer has become Twin Falls’ flagship business. A major diminishment of cattle operations in the Magic Valley now would be a huge economic blow to the region.
Dealing with this would create serious short-term economic problems. Deferring the situation, or letting it continue on the trajectory of the last few decades, would create bigger issues down the road. This is one of those situations where the people of a region decide what they’re about, and what they plan to leave behind.