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Saturday, March 2, 2024 | Back issues
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Plan to regulate water pollution from grazing gets OK from California Coastal Commission

“This degree of water pollution, which threatens aquatic habitat and public health, shouldn’t be happening anywhere, and definitely not in a national park,” a conservationist said.

POINT REYES, Calif. (CN) — With water contamination at Point Reyes National Seashore at dangerous levels, the California Coastal Commission gave the green light Thursday to a strategy to regulate private ranchers and require them to stop practices that increase fecal pollution from cattle.

The commission spent hours Thursday debating a second version of a water-quality strategy from the National Park Service, to address chronic water pollution caused by private ranching in the only national seashore on the West Coast.

Point Reyes, a one-hour drive from San Francisco with about 2.5 million annual visitors, is one of few national parks allowing cattle ranching. Ranchers lease more than one-third of the National Park Service land to graze 5,000 beef and dairy cattle. The ranchers seek 20-year lease extensions, and currently enjoy rents subsidized by taxpayer funds and below-market grazing fees. 

The commission gave conditional approval to the park service's plan to extend leases of 24 commercial beef and dairy operators in April 2021. The service had to submit a new water quality strategy by the following spring, but the commission voted unanimously to reject that draft. Resource Renewal Institute said park visitors discovered long-standing lease violations by ranchers, including a massive hazardous dumpsite, a rancher bulldozing a creek known to harbor endangered species, pumping human sewage into a manure pond for cattle waste spread on parklands and untreated human waste pooling under worker housing.

Resource Renewal Institute and the National Parks Conservation Association submitted a letter signed by at least 120 environmental organizations and local businesses asking the commission to reconsider their conditional concurrence with the park service. About 15,000 people sent comments asking to hold the feds accountable.

Demands for a strategy to address ongoing water pollution come after results from the most rigorous independent water quality report ever conducted in the seashore, by Turtle Island Restoration Network. It revealed pollution at levels dangerous to public health, with geoenvironmental engineer Douglas Lovell documenting consistent water quality pollution caused by cattle manure and subsidized private ranching.

The new report revealed eight watersheds contain bacteria concentrations exceeding state standards, some more than 170 times the standards for fecal coliform. Wading, swimming, kayaking and other forms of water recreation in Kehoe Lagoon and Drakes Estero result in unacceptable health risk, the report said. 

It is not the first time studies have revealed poor water quality on the seashore. A 2017 Center for Biological Diversity report ranked Point Reyes in the top 10% of U.S. locations most contaminated by feces. Lovell’s 2021 water quality report for Western Watersheds Project found unsafe concentrations of fecal bacteria contamination that significantly exceeded state water quality criteria. A Heal the Bay Report published in June gave an F grade to numerous beaches on the seashore due to poor water quality. 

“This degree of water pollution, which threatens aquatic habitat and public health, shouldn’t be happening anywhere, and definitely not in a national park,” said Jeff Miller, a senior conservation advocate with the Center of Biological Diversity, in the center’s public statement.

Scott Webb, policy director with Turtle Island Restoration Network, added, “I don’t care if it’s commercial agriculture or natural gas development, we need to stand up to private industry that continues to profit off destroying public land, hard stop.”

At the commission meeting Thursday, staffer Alexis Berrera said they determined the new strategy draft met requirements such as showing how water quality monitoring will be improved by requiring ranchers to install compliant infrastructure, while committing to regular inspections and annual reports.

The National Park Service said it will work with ranchers to begin efforts to improve water quality through the rest of 2022. Staffer Anna Altman said they will conduct follow-up inspections in November. They said there are enforcement tools, like not renewing leases, if ranchers do not comply. 

She acknowledged that while a lawsuit is underway challenging the National Park Service’s controversial plan for expanding private agriculture at Point Reyes, two-year interim leases are awaiting signatures from all ranchers require meeting new water quality standards.

Many speakers criticized the new strategy, saying it does not offer enough transparency to ensure that ranchers will face harsher punishments for failures to stop polluting public land.

“There should be triggers for corrective actions to be taken for infractions that are definite, and not vague like they are proposed,” Marin Audobon Society’s Barbara Salzman said.

Deborah Mascowitz of Resource Renewal Institute said the strategy has “critical deficiencies” without transparency efforts like online water quality tracking, public health warnings on beaches and public annual water quality reports. Morgan Patton of Environmental Action Committee of West Marin said the park service's draft interim leases with ranchers should also be made public before approval.

The only support for the strategy came from two representatives of the California Cattlemen's Association. Kirk Wilbur called it “robust” and said it will create significant costs for ranchers to develop and manage new infrastructure, but added they are “more than willing” to do this work.

Altman said the park service has many enforcement tools like fines and making physical changes on ranches that owners must pay for. California Coastal Commission deputy director Kate Huckelbridge said there will be options to adjust the strategy as they get more data. “This first year, the purpose of it is to get our hands wrapped around the comprehensive picture of what's going on," she said.

Several commissioners encouraged scheduling a review hearing to declare that they want the National Park Service to take remedial actions — which can lead to litigation, according to staffer Erin Tobin.

“The NPS would be the first to say they just don't have the funding,” Commissioner Caryl Hart said. “As long as the cattle ranching is continuing at Point Reyes, the commission should be looking at working with NPS over the long run over the climate impacts of those activities.”

But commission chair Donnie Brownsey said she does not want the case to go to the courts for the next decade. “I don’t want us to wait and let the poop sit where it is,” she said. She successfully negotiated for modifications, adding ways to get reports from regional agencies on water quality violations and tracking responses to them.

The commission split 6-5 in approving the strategy with Brownsey’s modifications. Annual meetings will be held to discuss data and progress, as well as any ongoing violations.

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Categories / Environment, Government

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