Why One Town Missed its Water-Saving Goal: It's the Chicken
A banner urging residents to save water hangs in the city of Livingston. The town was supposed to cut water use by 32 percent, but so far it hasn't even hit the 10 percent mark. (Sasha Khokha/KQED)
A Mexican cowboy, known as a charro, pulls the reins to make his horse dance for an audience gathered at the Thursday night market in Livingston. This town south of Modesto bills itself the "sweet potato capital of California" and is home to farmworkers who speak Spanish, English and Punjabi.
The city’s mayor pro tem, Gurpal Samra, says he regularly talks to the Sikh community about water conservation at his gurdwara, or Sikh temple. Tonight he's working the crowd at the street market, handing out free shutoff valves residents can attach to their bathroom sinks.
"They're very easy to use," explains Samra. "Soon as you put your hand underneath it, the water flows, and as soon as you move your hands, water stops. Great way to save water."
Livingston actually tops the state's list of cities that have missed their mark when it comes to saving water. It was supposed to cut water use by 32 percent, but the latest data show it hasn’t even hit the 10 percent mark. Samra says there’s a reason, and it has nothing to do with long showers.
"What we have is one large customer that uses more water than the rest of the city combined," says Samra.
He’s talking about Foster Farms, which employs about 3,000 people in its processing plant here.
Samra says the plant uses nearly 70 percent of Livingston’s water. And that's why Livingston was the first city to ask the State Water Resources Control Board for an alternative compliance order, so they won't get fined for failing to meet their water-saving target.
"What do we do? Do you wish for us to have Foster Farms shut down? That’s not economically feasible," says Samra. "There are a lot of folks in Livingston and up and down the valley that rely on Foster Farms running. It’s not only the people working in the plant, also the people that grow chickens, the ones that supply fuel. So that’s a lot of the economy."
Foster Farms declined my request for an interview, but in a statement, the company said 2014 USDA rules to prevent salmonella required the chicken plant to use more water. But since then, Foster Farms says, it’s installed new water-saving equipment, while still ensuring food safety.
Livingston’s the first city to get this kind of exemption from the state because of economic, health or safety reasons.
"They wouldn't be able to make the percentage cut without health and safety implications, or massive economic disruption. We do not want to have unsafe chicken out there," says Max Gomberg of the Water Board, which is enforcing conservation mandates for cities.
He says cities like Livingston that get alternative compliance orders still have to follow a list of steps to improve water savings or face penalties.
"So this is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for these communities. We are requiring them to take a number of pretty stringent actions," says Gomberg.
In Livingston's case, city leaders have to hang up banners urging conservation, and they have hired a college intern to help crack down on water waste.
A half-dozen other cities, like Vernon and El Segundo near LA, have also been granted alternative compliance orders.
Peter Gleick of the nonprofit Pacific Institute says it’s not unreasonable to give a break to small cities where big industry uses most of the water.
"But we have to do it in a way that keeps on the hook big industrial users that ought to also be figuring out how to use less water," says Gleick. "How to get the industrial sector to be as efficient as possible is a challenge we haven't tackled yet statewide, and we really need to."
Part of the problem, Gleick says, is that we really don’t have comprehensive data on how much water industrial plants actually use in California, so it’s hard to gauge whether they could be doing it more efficiently.