Group Wants Peek at Foster Farms’ Water Bill

     MERCED, Calif. (CN) — An animal rights group has demanded water-use details from a Central Valley town where Foster Farms slaughters and processes poultry, saying residents suffer through drought restrictions that don’t apply to the chicken giant.
     Animal Legal Defense Fund asked a Merced County Superior Court judge to order the city of Livingston to release its water-use data, calling the town of 13,000 “the worst-performing city in California in terms of the state standards” even though residents have severely restricted their water usage.
     Foster Farms is not a party to the petition.
     The fund, a nonprofit that advocates for more humane treatment of animals, often uses public records to support its mission to file “high-impact lawsuits to protect animals from harm.”
     It says it wants Livingston’s water-use records in order to better understand how the city’s water is being used, especially since city officials blamed its water woes on Foster Farms when residents who have diligently restricted their usage including only irrigating twice a week reacted strongly to the deflating news of missed conservation targets.
     The city refused to provide the group with the requested documents in an October 2015 letter stating utility-usage data is exempt from disclosure, the April 28 mandate petition states.
     Two months before that letter was sent, the State Water Resources Control Board issued an alternative compliance order which stated Livingston was almost 30 percent behind conservation standards mandated by California Gov. Jerry Brown in April 2015 to restrict water usage by 25 percent statewide.
     As part of the published alternative compliance order, the board ordered the city to continue to engage Foster Farms by working with them on recycling wastewater, process-efficiency programs and monitor fixtures and landscaping. Meanwhile, the board told Livingston to amp its efforts to educate residents on the drought measures and to continue residential watering limits.
     But while noting that last month state scientists said that almost 90 percent of the state is still experiencing drought conditions and 74 percent of California is in extreme drought, the animal rights group says Foster Farms continues to use a disproportionate amount of Livingston’s water — and wants to know exactly how much.
     “When Livingston missed the water reduction target mandated by the state, its inhabitants expressed surprise and confusion in the media,” the group says in its petition. “They noted they had been severely restricted in their personal water usage — for example, irrigation is only allowed twice a week. A state official further explained that if residents were asked to shoulder the entire burden of the mandated reduction, individuals would have to survive on just 11 gallons a day, an amount an amount inadequate to ensure health and sanitation.
     “Meanwhile, Livingston city officials disclosed that Foster Farms uses over two-thirds of the city’s water — 4 to 5 million gallons per day, or 1.46 to 1.825 billion gallons per year,” the group says.
     Foster Farms is the city’s largest employer, and is the largest private employer in all of Merced County. Accordingly, Livingston officials “rush to defend it in the media whenever it faces criticism about its practices,” the group’s petition says.
     “Slaughterhouses use disproportionately large quantities of water in their daily operations. Specifically, massive amounts of water are used to scald and clean carcasses, and to clean the plant surface areas and equipment.”
     The group notes that Livingston has justified missing Brown’s water conservation goals — effectively blaming Foster Farms — but also refuses to release any records to support its assertions.
     “In times of severe drought, transparency regarding water usage is more important than ever. Californians are doing their best to conserve water. They have a right — a right codified in the California Public Records Act and enshrined in the California Constitution — to access government records for the purposes of seeing the effects that agricultural producers are having on water conservation efforts,” the group says, asking the court to order the release of the records it has requested.
     Livingston officials did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
     The fund is represented Rebecca Cross of the San Francisco firm Braunhagey & Borden and by its in-house attorneys Christopher Berry and Carter Dillard.
     Eva Schueller, an attorney at BraunHagey & Borden, said, “It’s difficult to think of an issue as urgent and important to California residents as the catastrophic drought we’ve been facing for years. Yet there is little direct information on which to base a rigorous analysis of the amount of water used by the state’s animal agriculture facilities.
     “Livingston’s vague refusal to disclose its water usage records – particularly in light of the city’s failure to meet state mandated water conservation standards and city officials’ own admission that water issues are of enormous public concern – flies in the face of the government transparency promised by the California Public Records Act.”
     Foster Farms declined to comment on the matter.

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