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Life is Cheap in Yakima County


On November 6 it was a great pleasure to meet leaders from around the state at the Communities of Color for Climate Justice Summit. I was encouraged to hear from so many strong advocates for the environment and justice. Now I would like to share a little about my home, the Lower Yakima Valley, and pollution in the most productive agricultural region in Washington State.

The majority of the 85,000 people who live in this area are low income (median home income is $33,000) and minority (Latino ~ 80%, Native American ~ 10%). (U.S. Census, 2014). Statistically speaking Yakima County is the most dangerous place in the state to live. The homicide rate is 8.7 per 100,000. The next highest rate is 3.7 per 100,000 in Pierce County. Expenditures for public health are the lowest in Washington State. We spend about $15.50 per person while San Juan County at the other end of the spectrum spends about $236 per person. (WA State Dept. of Health, 2012; WA State Dept. of Health, 2015)

Life is cheap here. The monetary value of a human life in Yakima County is $2,200. Why do I say this?  In February a farmworker drowned in a manure lagoon on a Yakima dairy that had serious safety violations. The owner was fined $6,800. He felt this was too high and negotiated a reduced fine of $2,200. (Fannin, 2015; Johnson, 2015; UFW, 2015).

We are productive because of irrigation. Rainfall in the Yakima Valley is about seven inches per year. In order to grow all the fruits, vegetables, grapes and grains that everyone loves and needs farmers must add over thirty inches of irrigation water. Water from the rivers and streams is 400% over allocated and yet, people are breaking new ground, adding more land to a system that cannot deliver enough water. There was a drought here in 2005. The Department of Ecology allowed farmers to drill emergency wells in order to water their crops. With another, more severe drought in 2015 the emergency wells were re-activated. Some were found dry and had to be deepened. The water table is dropping. (Prengaman, 2015: Ely, Bachmann & Vaccaro, 2011)

Instream flows for fish suffer while irrigation runoff makes the Lower Yakima River the second most polluted in the state. (The Spokane River is arguably worse due to PCBs.) The Yakima River still receives runoff DDT that was applied to the fields decades ago. In spite of major improvements to drainage systems, large amounts of phosphorous and nitrogen from cropland feed into the river and lead to eutrophication, one of many signs of global warming.  (Roza-Sunnyside Joint Board of Control, 2009).

Life for the Yakama people is intimately connected to fish and the river. Native people believe that human life will cease if the salmon no longer return to spawn. Today, health experts advise pregnant women to limit their intake of fish from the Yakima and Columbia Rivers. Bottom fish in the Lower Yakima River are considered unsafe for human consumption. (WA State Dept. of Ecology, 2015b).

Due to a strange interpretation of a 1945 Washington State water law, farmers in our state can withdraw as much groundwater as they need to feed livestock, no matter what. Seventy years ago lawmakers had no idea that there would be thousands of cows maintained year round on small acreages in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Nevertheless, the law still stands and dairies in the Yakima Valley withdraw millions of gallons of pure water every day from the deep aquifers while they pollute the shallow aquifers that people use for domestic purposes. (WA Department of Ecology, 2012).

One of the bacterial diseases with a known connection to the dairy industry is Campylobacter jejuni, the leading cause of diarrhea. The bacteria live in cattle without harming the animals. Infection is spread to people by contact, by air and water. Rates for Campylobacter in the Lower Yakima Valley are about four times higher than the state average. In one community that is surrounded by dairies the rate has been up to twenty five times higher. (Davis, 2013; WA State Dept. of Health).

The official answer to ground and surface water pollution due to dairies is the WSDA Dairy Nutrient Management Program. Dairymen are mandated to create nutrient (manure) management plans designed to prevent pollution from the large amounts of waste created by high producing dairy cows.

Daily Cow

In 2015 a federal judge found that putting more manure on fields than the crops can use is mismanagement of solid waste and leads to pollution of the groundwater. Cow Palace Dairy, one of the better managed dairies in the area, lost this landmark case because they ignored their own nutrient management plans. They promised to protect the environment and public health using best available science and they did not. (Tebbutt Law, 2015).

There are about 120,000 milk cows in a 512 square mile area in the Lower Yakima Valley. Each cow produces the same amount of waste as 23 adult humans. This means that we have the equivalent of 3 million people with no sewage system. The adverse consequences are well documented. (Paulot & Jacob, 2014; PEW Commission 2008; American Public Health Association, 2003; National Association for Local Boards of Health, 2010).

Ammonia emissions in Yakima County are almost twice as high as any other county in the state. In 2008 animal agriculture in the area produced 6,078 tons of ammonia. (U.S. EPA, 2008). In 2011 that number increased to 8,054 tons. (U.S. EPA, 2011).

If dairies were factories they would have to report these emissions. Ammonia directly contributes to formation of fine particulate matter that is associated with increases in pre-term birth, myocardial infarction and lung disease. Yakima County has some of the highest rates in the state for all three. (Washington State Tracking Network, n.d.)

This is a health hazard to the people who live in the valley and it is not experienced anywhere else in the state. This is an Environmental Justice issue. This is a global warming issue related to huge increases in reactive nitrogen. (Sutton, et al, 2011; Dubrovsky et al, 2010; Tomich et al, 2012).

If this alarms you, as it should, please support efforts to re-write the WA State Stock Watering Law, RCW 90.44.050, when they surface. Please study the current work that the Washington State Department is doing to create an effective National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Permit for CAFOs and send comments that highlight the impact of pollution from animal agriculture on global warming and climate change. (WA DOE, 2015). Please support efforts to mandate air monitoring for ammonia in our state.



  1. 2009 Photo courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey
  2. 2014 Photo Courtesy of Tebbutt Law Offices


Davis, M. A., Moore, D. L., Baker, K. N., French, N. P., Patnode, M., Hensley, J., … & Besser, T. E. (2013). Risk factors for campylobacteriosis in two Washington State counties with high numbers of dairy farms. Journal of clinical microbiology, 51(12), 3921-3927. Retrieved from http://jcm.asm.org/content/51/12/3921.full

Fannin, J. (2015) Dairy agrees to reduced fine in employee workplace death. Daily Sun News. Retrieved from http://www.dailysunnews.com/news/2015/oct/13/dairy-agrees-reduced-fine-employee-workplace-death/

Johnson, J. (2015) Workplace safety on dairies demands legislative action. The Stand. Retrieved from http://www.thestand.org/2015/09/dairy-farm-safety-demands-legislative-action/

Public Health Association (2003) Precautionary Moratorium on New American Concentrated Animal Feed Operations. Retrieved from http://www.apha.org/advocacy/policy/policysearch/default.htm?id=1243

Dubrovsky et al. (2010) Nutrients in the Nation’s Streams and Groundwater, 1992–2004. US Geological Survey, Circular 1350. Retrieved from http://groundwaternitrate.ucdavis.edu/files/138963.pdf

Ely, D. M., Bachmann, M. P., & Vaccaro, J. J. (2011). Numerical simulation of groundwater flow for the Yakima River basin aquifer system, Washington (No. 2011-5155). US Geological Survey. Retrieved from http://pubs.usgs.gov/sir/2011/5155/pdf/sir20115155.pdf

National Association of Local Boards of Health (2010) Understanding Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations and Their Impact on Communities. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/ehs/Docs/Understanding_CAFOs_NALBOH.pdf

Paulot, F., & Jacob, D. J. (2014). Hidden cost of US agricultural exports: particulate matter from ammonia emissions. Environmental science & technology, 48(2), 903-908. Retrieved from http://acmg.seas.harvard.edu/publications/2014/paulot_export_2014.pdf

PEW Commission (2008) Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America. Retrieved from http://www.pewtrusts.org/uploadedFiles/wwwpewtrustsorg/Reports/Industrial_Agriculture/PCIFAP_FINAL.pdf

Prengaman, K. (2015) Drought forces farmers with junior water rights to get creative. Yakima Herald Republic, Sept. 19, 2015. Retrieved from http://www.yakimaherald.com/news/local/drought-forces-farmers-with-junior-water-rights-to-get-creative/article_bc73c738-5f5c-11e5-9446-83a1249d6290.html

Roza Sunnyside Joint Board of Control (2009) Water Quality Conditions in Irrigation Waterways within the Roza and Sunnyside Valley Irrigation Districts, Lower Yakima Valley, Washington, 1997 – 2008. Retrieved from http://www.svid.org/images/WQ%20Conditions%20in%20Irrigation%20waterwaysReportFinal.pdf

Sutton et al. (2011) The European Union Nitrogen Assessment. Retrieved from http://www.nine-esf.org/ENA-Book

Tebbutt, C. (2015) Documents in CARE and Center for Food Safety v. Cow Palace, et al. Retrieved from http://charlietebbutt.com/cases.html

Tomich et al. (2012) The California Nitrogen Assessment. Retrieved from http://asi.ucdavis.edu/programs/sarep/research-initiatives/are/nutrient-mgmt/california-nitrogen-assessment/intro-to-the-california-nitrogen-assessment

United Farmworkers (2015) National tour targets abuses of WA state workers at Darigold-member dairies. Retrieved from http://www.ufw.org/_board.php?mode=view&b_code=darigold_news&b_no=17601&page=1&field=&key=&n=55

U.S. Geological Survey (2013) Lower Yakima Valley Eutrophication Study. Retrieved from http://or.water.usgs.gov/projs_dir/yakima_nutrients/

U.S. Geological Survey (2009) Assessment of Eutrophication in the lower Yakima River Basin, Washington 2004 – 07. Retrieved from http://pubs.usgs.gov/sir/2009/5078/pdf/sir20095078.pdf

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2008) Air Emissions Inventory. Retrieved from http://www3.epa.gov/ttn/chief/net/2008inventory.html

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2011) Air Emissions Inventory. Retrieved from http://www3.epa.gov/ttn/chief/net/2011inventory.html

Von Keyserlingk, M. A. G., Martin, N. P., Kebreab, E., Knowlton, K. F., Grant, R. J., Stephenson, M., … & Smith, S. I. (2013). Invited review: Sustainability of the US dairy industry. Journal of dairy science, 96(9), 5405-5425. Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2179&context=usdaarsfacpub

Washington State Department of Ecology (2012) Stock water Exemption under the Groundwater Code. Retrieved from http://www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/wr/rights/easterday.html

Washington State Department of Ecology (2014) The Yakima Air Wintertime Nitrate Study – Final Report. Retrieved from http://www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/air/air_monitoring_data/PDFs/Yakima_Air_Winter_Study_Report.pdf

Washington State Department of Ecology (2015a) Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation General Permit. Retrieved from http://www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/WQ/permits/cafo/index.html

Washington State Department of Ecology (2015b) Water quality improvement project Lower Yakima River area: Suspended sediment and DDT.  Retrieved from  http://www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/wq/tmdl/yakima_wq/LowerYakTMDL.html

WA State Dept. of Health (2012) Report: Public Health Services – Funding by Local Health Jurisdiction. Retrieved from www.doh.wa.gov/Portals/1/Documents/9210/2012-Total_LHJ.xl

Washington State Department of Health (2015) Washington State injury data tables. Retrieved from http://www.doh.wa.gov/YouandYourFamily/InjuryandViolencePrevention/Data/WashingtonStateInjuryDataTables

Washington Tracking Network (n.d.) A Source for Public Health Data.  Washington State Department of Health. Retrieved from https://fortress.wa.gov/doh/wtn/WTNPortal/#!q0=370