As we have come to realize, nearly everything we as humans do affects the environment. Whether those actions come in the form of small, everyday decisions or larger, more far-reaching impacts instigated by industries, humans are deeply connected with the natural world. 

The agricultural and the dairy industries’ environmental impact is a big one. The traditional approaches of heavy use of fertilizers, pesticides, and other agrochemicals contribute to water pollution via runoff. When the land these products are used on can no longer absorb or retain the chemical, the chemicals often wash into local water sources or permeate into groundwater, causing severe pollution.

Cattle manure presents a similar problem. Manure that is spread on fields or improperly managed (uncovered heaps, left sitting on land where it was deposited, etc.) can also enter local water bodies, bringing incredibly high concentrations of pollutants with it. Methane released from manure also has grave impacts on the atmosphere – this greenhouse gas is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide, further amplifying the effects of global warming. 

Methane is responsibly for 30% of global warming. Idaho’s dairies produce large amounts of methane through enteric fermentation (cow burps) and manure.

These impacts are evident across the U.S. – and right here in Idaho.

Just as Idaho is an agriculture state, it is also a river state. But in southern Idaho, the relationship between the two is rocky. From its headwaters in eastern Idaho and Wyoming, the tributaries of the Snake River hold some of the best fishing on the planet. But downriver in southern Idaho, there’s a different story. 

The once-mighty river dwindles to a trickle in places. High levels of nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural pollution cause toxic algae outbreaks, reducing oxygen in the water and subsequently killing aquatic life, all while posing severe threats to both human and animal health. It is critical that all users adhere to posted guidelines regarding water quality whenever they visit the Snake to keep both their family members – with feet or paws – and themselves safe. In some areas, it is unsafe to even touch the water or eat fish from it.  

Toxic algae bloom. Idaho Power photo.

Sadly, this isn’t a new story – the Snake River has been polluted and overallocated for decades, resulting in poor water quality and increasingly declining flows. While the water in these spots remains murky, the solution is clear – more needs to be done to restore the Snake River as it flows through southern Idaho. 

Because agriculture and dairies are the lifeblood of countless communities in Idaho, they present an unique opportunity in helping address solutions to the pollution of both the Snake River and local groundwater aquifersRegenerative agricultural practices and organic dairy management techniques such as cover cropping, crop rotation, no- or low-till operations, and decreasing reliance on artificial chemicals and hormones for production have numerous positive impacts for the environment and show promise as being the future of food production, including right here in Idaho. 

Multi-year cover crop at Ernie’s Organics in Shoshone, ID.

ICL wants to work with farmers and dairy people to have a win-win situation for everyone: reduce the amount of contaminants flowing into the Snake River while increasing their yields and making their farms more efficient and profitable. This summer, we will be interviewing farmers and ranchers across southern Idaho who have implemented regenerative and/or organic practices on their own farms, sharing their stories and experiences. Though it is important to crack down on unsustainable practices that affect the Snake, it is equally crucial to highlight folks who are embracing innovative strategies to improve their operations and environmental impacts.

Stay tuned for our Farm Friday series, or get them sent right to you by signing up for our Snake River emails. Want to take immediate action for the Snake River? Let Idaho leaders know you value the health and safety of our groundwater and the Snake River and want to see it restored to safe, swimmable and fishable conditions by clicking the button below.