Moving the cheese to New Mexico

  Neighbors and local governments are increasingly fed up with the stinky, unhealthy conditions of the huge dairy operations on the Snake River Plain. One of the world’s largest cheesemakers, Ireland’s Glanbia Inc., recently wanted to expand its operations near Twin Falls, but local opposition — in the form of heated public meetings and two counties’ reluctance to grant permits — caused the company to change its plans. It’s now building a cheese plant in Clovis, N.M., that will process 6.6 million pounds of milk a day.

Meanwhile, Idaho’s state government continues to back the mega-dairies. Last spring, for example, industry lobbying persuaded the Legislature to weaken a key water law that had been used against dairy expansions. In the past, whenever dairies sought more groundwater or water transfers, opponents took the opportunity to raise many other issues, under a broad "local public interest" right that is a standard in Western water law. Now, such protests in Idaho must be based strictly on water impacts and economics. Critics cannot talk about ammonia and hydrogen sulfide emissions, contaminated dust, flies or other impacts from industrial dairies.

"The big boys were affronted by the audacity of (the) public," says Bill Chisholm, an environmentalist who helps dairies’ neighbors file protests. Water law "was the only place we had recourse, and they took it away from us."