Idaho’s sewer system is the Snake River

As Big Ag flourishes, this massive waterway suffers.

  • Kirk Anderson
  • Irrigation headgate on the Henry's Fork, a tributary of Idaho's Snake River.

    Kirk Anderson
  • A panoramic view of the Snake River from the canyon rim just a few miles upriver from the town of Marsing in southwestern Idaho, where the irrigated plain is surrounded by desert.

    Kirk Anderson
  • The Snake River winds through farmland south of Boise, Idaho.

    Kirk Anderson
  • An aerial view of one of the many industrial dairy farms dominating the landscape of southern Idaho.

    Glenn Oakley
  • Agricultural runoff into the Snake near Homedale.

    Leo A. Geis, Idaho Airships Inc.
  • Boats float beneath a depleted Shoshone Falls. So much water is diverted for hydropower and irrigation above the falls that sometimes it's only a trickle.

    Kirk Anderson

Begin where the Snake River begins, as crystal-clear, clean water on the calderas of the Yellowstone Plateau, on the edge of the vibrant national park. In late spring, the largest tributary in the headwaters, the Henry's Fork of the Snake River, is still locked in a head-high layer of snowpack. On wind-blown ridges rimming the water, hundreds of elk graze under the late morning sun. A-frames and log cabins hibernate, boarded and silent, awaiting the summer arrival of the fly fishers who treasure this place. Everything appears at peace and as it should be.

But for those who know what to look for, a less pristine reality is evident, even here in the river system's headwaters. It's represented by the 7,000-acre Island Park Reservoir on the Henry's Fork, built in 1938 to benefit farmers downhill from here by holding back and controlling the flow for irrigation diversions. This repurposing of the water becomes obvious 20 miles south of Island Park, where the plateau tips to deliver the Henry's Fork to the Snake River Plain, a rapid descent from the residue of a high-elevation winter to a more recognizable spring, from the postcard Idaho to the real Idaho, from what was to what is.

From here on, the Snake, to use the euphemism of record, becomes a "working river" – wholly subservient to agriculture. There are many ways to describe how a river system gets harnessed to ag, but we'll begin with the most basic, the dams and reservoirs. The Snake's drainage is interrupted by no fewer than 23 large dams that form reservoirs, and there are many smaller dams that divert water for irrigation without stalling the river's flow. The reservoirs impound about half of the river's 1,078 miles. None of this is news; we began damming this river – the largest tributary of the Columbia – more than a hundred years ago, and the dams were only the first step in the creation of one of the world's largest concentrations of industrialized agriculture.

We are not here for elk or fly fishing, but rather for accounting. Industrial agriculture impacts the entire planet, but the Snake's system – sizable, relatively isolated, discrete and significant – is a good place to assess the impacts at a local scale, examining the nuts and bolts as well as the weight of the whole. This accounting process is simple enough for those willing to pay attention: You begin where the water is clean and relatively natural, then follow the big river across an entire landscape defined by agriculture, to where the abused, exhausted water finally ends up.

Acknowledge one basic fact about the vast lowland that the river flows through: The Snake River Plain, sprawling over 15,600 square miles, is a desert. The river system and about 10 inches of rain a year are its water supply entire.

Remember that, as we continue our journey into the realm of industrial ag. Henry's Fork merges with the mainstem Snake near Ashton, a tiny town whose tall silos are monuments to the river's work. In the countryside, farmers are burning last summer's unwanted growth off the irrigation ditches, smoothing the channels for this season's flows. More farmers on massive machines till the soil, generating dust clouds. You can't miss how irrigation has recast the land. What was once drought-tolerant sagebrush is now a green-tiled landscape of clean-cut squares and circles drawn by center pivots.

Whether the irrigation water comes from ditches drawing directly from the river system or from groundwater wells, essentially all of it comes from the river. That's true nearly everywhere farmers operate around rivers, but it's especially true here, because the thermal geologic forces that created the Yellowstone calderas also deposited loose volcanic soil across the plain, soil so porous that the groundwater flows as one with the river. The irrigators here have tens of thousands of groundwater pumps – run on cheap electricity that also comes from the dams – causing the water to circle continuously, from aquifer to surface, and then percolating back to the aquifer. The entire groundwater body – the largest west of the Continental Divide, larger even than Lake Erie – is named in recognition of the close connection: the Snake River Aquifer.

The irrigation has converted 6.5 million acres from grassland to cropland along the Snake – an area larger than Massachusetts or New Jersey. Beyond that, just past the green irrigated fields, there are tawny furzes of unplowed grass, rock and lava flows that amount to millions of additional acres devoted to ag. Most of this land is federal, controlled by the Bureau of Land Management and leased by farmers and ranchers for livestock grazing. In total, the Snake strings together at least 18 counties, and according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture and the Idaho Department of Commerce, fully 87 percent of these counties' land is used for agriculture, either cropland or grazing.

This entirely domesticated landscape's most famous product is the Idaho spud – the russet potatoes that have long been and still are Idaho's dominant cash field crop. But pause near Ashton for a closer look. Some of the spud sheds seem more forlorn than usual, some of them even abandoned. Notice, too, the stubble fields awaiting spring planting – this year, the stubble is corn. Corn in potato country? It's evidence of a recent shift that has intensified the plain's industrial ag. Since 1993, Idaho's potato acreage has declined by 18 percent. Sugar beets, long the region's other mainline crop, have declined by 15 percent in total acreage planted. Same for malting barley (a decline of 14 percent) and wheat (down 12 percent). Meanwhile, corn acreage has almost tripled, and alfalfa – the other up-and-coming crop here – has increased tenfold.

The cause of this revolutionary shift can be smelled as well as seen as we continue down the river. In enormous feedlots dedicated to dairy production, black-and-white Holstein dairy cattle stand shoulder-to-shoulder at feed bunks, gobbling the corn and alfalfa and transforming it into milk and mountains of manure. Since 1993, the number of dairy cows in Idaho has nearly tripled, to 572,000 head, so that Idaho now ranks fourth among the states, just behind New York and just ahead of Pennsylvania.

It's an odd development for a desert like this. After all, cows evolved and were domesticated in wet climates, and corn and alfalfa grow best in places whose annual rainfall is quadruple that of southern Idaho. Milking, processing, washing, moving manure, all suck up massive amounts of water. But the development is deliberate. These dairy operators are not local potato farmers who suddenly fell in love with Holsteins. Rather, most moved here from California's Central Valley, eager to harness this desert's water to grow large quantities of high-quality forage for dairy cows. Wilson Gray, a state agricultural economist, explains the attraction: Idaho supports the dairies through the complete domestication of the Snake River, which allows farmers to meter out X number of inches of water, year-in, year-out. No rain necessary; no floods expected anytime soon.

Hundreds of miles from the Snake's headwaters, we reach the Magic Valley, nicknamed for the miraculous conversion of desert to farms. It's ground zero for Idaho's industrial agriculture. The Magic Valley hosts two-thirds of the state's dairy feedlot cattle, and its eight counties include Gooding County, where more than 99 percent of the land is given over to ag, and Cassia County, which achieves 96 percent. As we enter the valley's hub, Twin Falls, on a bridge spanning the scenic Snake River Canyon, the two immediate impressions are: This town is prosperous, and it values its view of the river. The country club sits on the canyon floor, and tony restaurants, malls and office buildings line the developed side of the rim, commanding the view of the river 500 feet below. All are attached to the dairy sector by tributaries of cash.

You might be surprised by the breakdown of the dairy sector. Only 6 percent or so of Idaho's total dairy production goes to "fluid milk," the stuff you drink. That's because fluid milk is heavy and costs a lot to ship. Better to manufacture and sell dry milk, which is why much of the Snake River Plain's milk leaves in a dehydrated form, bound for food processors in Asian markets. Cheese is also big business here, mostly the processed kind slapped on the burgers in fast-food chains, or in the industry's preferred term, QSRs or "quick service restaurants."

Thus, the top tier of the Snake River Plain ag industry includes the usual suspects: J.R. Simplot, Idaho's homegrown potato-rooted multinational company, with annual sales topping $3 billion, and the Amalgamated Sugar Company, the nation's second-largest sugar producer, which processes the beets for bulk customers such as Pepsi's Mountain Dew. And there's an abundance of new suspects, like the Idaho Milk Products company, whose Magic Valley factory processes 3 million pounds of milk per day – in the company's words, the "largest dedicated milk protein concentrate and milk protein process plant in the world." Glanbia Foods, the world's largest manufacturer of American-style cheese, is also headquartered in the Magic Valley. Cheese- and whey-maker Lactalis American Group, owned by multinational corporations based in Italy and France, also operates here. And so on.

Begin the critical accounting with economics, but deeper than the boosterish summations of jobs and revenue. A couple of decades ago, the famously blunt Dwayne Andreas, head of Archer Daniels Midland, the prototypical U.S. food processor, said that he would never consider steering his company into the business of farming, the front line of ag. He preferred processing, because the risks are lower and the profit margins higher. He also acknowledged that U.S. agriculture is not a free-market economy, but is and always has been a socialist enterprise, supported by pro-industry government policies, such as domestic price guarantees and import restrictions, as well as direct subsidies. The 18 Snake River counties, for instance, received a total of $1.85 billion in various federal farm subsidies between 1995 and 2012, when the dairies were ramping up.

But really, U.S. industrial agriculture is more of a hybrid. Modern entrepreneurs of all stripes succeed by socializing their costs onto the taxpayers while they privatize profits. That's the real magic in the Magic Valley: making the costs disappear.

This magic was begun by no less than President Theodore Roosevelt, a progressive who believed the West could be settled, made prosperous and democratized by irrigation and farming. His seminal legislation in this regard was the 1902 Reclamation Act, which fronted much of the federal cash that began the industrialization of the Snake River by locking the flow behind subsidized dams. Later in the 1900s German social scientist Karl Wittfogel held a diametrically opposed view of this kind of development, warning that "hydraulic societies," from the Chinese on, have been decidedly undemocratic by necessity, more suited for oligarchy. Wittfogel would feel validated by modern Idaho's hydraulic society. There are a lot of farms along the Snake, and so you could say the plain is peopled with yeomen, as Roosevelt envisioned. But follow the money. Gooding County, for instance, has a total of 665 farms, but 14 percent of them account for 95 percent of total sales. Adding up all the farms along the Snake River system, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture, 8.5 percent of them pull in 85 percent of total sales. These oligarchic farms and the mega-processors perch at the top of a pyramid based on low-wage jobs.

As a recent editorial in the Twin Falls Times-News observes: "Beyond the political shoutouts and grandstanding, beyond the high-brow discussions of economic development and billionaire elbow-rubbing, there lurks the truth of south-central Idaho's economy. The people are left impoverished while the sprawling new factories make a very few rich." This jeremiad is even more remarkable because the Times-News is owned by Lee Enterprises, a pro-business, conservative chain anchored in Midwestern farm states. But the local editors can't ignore the reality in the Magic Valley: About 80 percent of the students in the valley's schools receive free or reduced-price lunches, a common indication of poverty. "These are farm kids," the editorial points out, "and children of laborers and factory workers" mostly associated with industrial ag. In another gauge of poverty, Idaho as a state is dead last in average weekly pay, but the Magic Valley's counties fall below even that dismal average.

The jarring discrepancy between upscale malls and impoverished children living nearby in sub-standard housing was recently, if inadvertently, recognized by Idaho's highly conservative U.S. Rep. Raúl Labrador, who reported that 90 percent of the jobs in Idaho's dairy sector are held by "illegal immigrants." Nonsense, the dairymen countered; it's really only between 75 and 80 percent.

There is nothing unique about this economic angle; it pretty much tracks the demographics and cash flow of industrial agriculture nationwide. We tend to look the other way, because this is how we get food. People gotta eat, don't they? But consider what Idaho's farms produce. Potatoes? Everyone's "gotta eat" potatoes, right? Except that only a sliver of Idaho's total production is sent as whole potatoes to supermarkets. About two-thirds is processed in one way or another, sliced, diced, frozen, dehydrated, typically ending up in a fast-food fryer, filled with unhealthy trans fats. Sugar beets? Like the fries, sugar lies at the root of the nation's obesity epidemic. Barley? The dry farmers who specialize in this crop are typically Mormons growing malting barley for giant beer-makers, Coors, Modelo and Anheuser-Busch, consumption of which is prohibited by the Mormon Church.

Or consider Chobani, the rising-star manufacturer of Greek yogurt. Chobani started small in upstate New York, but is now anchored in a gleaming new 1-million-square-foot industrial building just outside Twin Falls – the world's biggest yogurt factory. Hamdi Ulukaya, the Turkish immigrant who founded the company in the early '90s, is today personally worth $5.4 billion. But even Chobani yogurt's mega-factory doesn't exactly produce "gotta eat" food. Chobani boasts that its product is "delicious, nutritious, natural and accessible," but a recent New Yorker article took issue with some of those adjectives, under the headline "Just Add Sugar," the unofficial credo of the U.S. food processing industry. Chobani has achieved its success not only by adding sugar, but also artificial colors and thickening agents. Its "natural" yogurt is really another kind of fast food derived from feedlots, which has important implications for human health as well as the environment and the economy. To name one, feedlot milk and beef lack the healthy omega-3 fats present in both products when they derive from pasture-fed cows.

All this industrial ag has transformed the environment. The Snake River Plain's original native sagebrush and grasses were much richer in plant and animal life than today's farmed and livestocked plain. Fur trappers in the early 1800s, among the first Europeans to arrive, described "a landscape of grasses shoulder high to a horse, with brush and trees along even the intermittent streams and a riot of bird life, grazing animals and attendant carnivores," write E.B. Bentley and Glenn Oakley in a history of the place published by Boise State University. "Trappers reported bison, antelope, sheep, elk, deer and beaver. Carnivores included grizzly bear, wolves, coyote, lynx and cougar."

Wildlife in any desert is largely dependent on riparian vegetation. From the number of reservoirs alone, you might conclude that half of the region's original riparian habitat has been drowned, but this understates the case. Cottonwood forests were the core of the riparian areas, stabilizing the sediment with their roots and offering shade with their leaves, creating habitat for at least 150 species of grasses and forbs along with the wildlife, according to researchers focusing on a reasonably intact remnant west of Twin Falls. Cottonwoods require flooding, the seasonal rise and fall of water, to survive. The dams ended that ebb and flow so early that we really have no idea how much riparian habitat was destroyed, but it was clearly more than half.