A long-simmering feud over who should regulate water quality along rangelands gained the attention of the California State Water Resources Control Board recently, as it reviewed programs underway at its nine regional boards.

Environmental advocates blasted ranchers over perceived impacts to riparian ecosystems. Ranchers, however, showed that data collected from nearly three decades of voluntary conservation efforts portray a different picture of the relationship between cattle and the environment.

“I ask the state board to step up and take leadership,” said John Buckley, executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Research Center, as he decried inaction at the regional boards and urged the state board to assert more authority over federal lands.

His concerns stemmed from a 2015 board decision, when it agreed with issues raised by agricultural stakeholders and determined that rangeland water quality is best regulated at the regional level to account for California’s many variations in hydrology, topography, climate and land use. The agency dropped a more aggressive regulatory proposal on the table and instead directed regional boards to develop their own regulations, along with nonregulatory actions.

Yet Buckley claimed his organization has photos and water samples that document rangeland water quality violations. He charged that E. coli fecal coliform has contaminated streams across millions of acres of federal public lands and that livestock have eroded streambanks, overgrazed riparian vegetation down to bare ground and trampled wetland habitats. The U.S. Forest Service, he explained, responded to the claims with “good intentions, but no meaningful action.”

In 2017 the group sued the service over the issue, arguing the federal government failed to comply with state and federal water quality laws. The claim sought to prohibit livestock allowances on federal lands. Intervening in the lawsuit, the California Farm Bureau argued that for more than 40 years the service has upheld an agreement with the state water board recognizing its practices comply with state laws.

kirk wilburKirk Wilbur, California Cattlemen's Association

Last year the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the Forest Service, reasoning the water boards, not the courts, have the authority to charge the service with water quality violations. The ruling meant ranchers were not liable for water quality objectives not included in their federal permits.

Frustrated, Buckley urged the board last week to step up its authority and force the federal agency to more closely monitor water quality across three national forests.

“There's not a lot of action being done, but there's a lot of impact,” added Sean Bothwell, executive director of the California Coastkeeper Alliance. “It's been a frustration of our local water groups for quite a while now.”

Bothwell had petitioned the state water board to hold the informational meeting because he felt the regional boards have not made any progress in addressing impairments.

None of the criticism was new to Sherri Brennan, a former Tuolumne County supervisor and one of the ranchers targeted in the case.

“We've been actively involved in some of these conversations for close to 50 years now,” said Brennan. “We want to embrace science. We want to embrace what actually is happening on the ground. We are looking for ways to find that information.”

Her family ranch monitors their federal allotments and recently engaged in a three-year study to examine cryptosporidium and other contaminants in the water system. It found that the microscopic parasite emanated largely from rodents.

In the court hearings, Brennan supplied two binders of monitoring information for every decade dating back to the 1980s, which contradicted claims from Buckley and his team. In a meadow at question in the case, she had directed the service to address a headcut that was steadily degrading the upslope soil, and she knew immediate action was needed. Biologists determined the cattle were not responsible for the damage since they had been fenced out of the meadow for decades. It began, they discovered, with wildlife trails and grew worse from untimely weather.

In another of the ranch’s allotments, the massive Rim Fire in 2013 destroyed an entire ecosystem, which served as a watershed for San Francisco. A subsequent economic impact analysis from the city estimated at least $40 billion in damages relating to the water quality and capacity of the watershed.

“The nexus between healthy, private grasslands and public grasslands are just intrinsically meshed,” concluded Brennan, adding, “We all recognize that we're not growing more private land and we're losing it at a dramatic rate.”

Kirk Wilbur, vice president of government affairs at the California Cattlemen’s Association, noted that regulations work best “when there is specific, verifiable information that suggests there is a water quality impairment.” He urged the board to work closely with those ranchers to address such a situation.

A board staff presentation on the regional regulatory programs at the start of the workshop was not an exhaustive account of the many actions taking place at the local level, he explained. Escalating tensions over grazing cattle in Point Reyes National Seashore, for example, led one regional board to develop a water quality program in collaboration with the San Francisco County board, the Coastal Commission and the National Park Service. It required a significant amount of infrastructure, on-site inspections of the ranches and extensive monitoring, according to Wilbur. The association, along with the farm bureau and other trade groups, supported the regulatory requirements, in part to address the public perception of impairments.

In the Central Valley, voluntary implementation of best management practices has exempted two subwatersheds from the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program. UC Davis research verified that the widespread adoption of fencing, herding mechanisms and siting cattle away from water sources have reduced E. coli concentrations in the waterways.

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“Additionally, there's a lot of other work done voluntarily by ranchers that you never hear about,” said Wilbur, explaining that partnerships with UC Cooperative Extension (UCCE) and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service have improved circumstances before issues rose to the regulatory realm. “Too often there is a regional or state approach to regulation that puts the onus on ranchers, who may not be able to afford the work that is necessary to improve water quality or certainly can't afford the time or resources required for the monitoring.”

Sean BothwellSean Bothwell, California Coastkeeper Alliance

He instead called for investing the board’s limited resources into voluntary efforts, rather than the regulatory approach proposed by environmental groups. Grazing, he argued, can improve water quality as well as the soil organic matter—a point “often ignored” in the discussion. It reduces the pollution that causes harmful algal blooms in waterways, for instance. He noted that the Air Resources Board has recognized the benefits of grazing in its latest update to the AB 32 Climate Scoping Plan, while the Department of Fish and Wildlife has adopted grazing on state lands to reduce fuel loads for wildfires.

“Our folks have a vested interest in retaining water quality,” he said. “If they degrade the environment, they're not going to be able to pass that on to a sixth or seventh generation. But they need the resources to do that.”

The board had favored a voluntary approach when it first began to consider rangeland impacts to water quality. In 1995 it adopted the Range and Water Quality Management Plan, a collaborative effort from several organizations and agencies that formed the building blocks for guidance the board is still implementing. UCCE then launched a short course to help ranchers meet the plan’s objectives. The board switched tactics in 2004, when it began implementing and enforcing a nonpoint source pollution program that codified the mechanism for regulating grazing impacts, according to staff.

Yet when the board dispersed the rangeland program to its regional boards in 2015, it lost touch with the program. Just one board member from that time is still serving. Last year the board invested a U.S. EPA technical assistance grant into analyzing and reporting on how the regional boards have regulated grazing across the state.

But the report presented to the board last week left chair Joaquin Esquivel yearning for more information. He called for additional monitoring and data collection to better assess the performance of the regional approach. But that led to some words of caution from stakeholders and experts.

“The difficulty with monitoring is that it's not easy to do,” explained Marc Horney, a rangeland management professor at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and chair of the Range Management Advisory Committee at the California Board of Forestry & Fire Protection. “It needs to be done and it needs to be used for identifying actual problems and solving them. But it is challenging tactically. And in terms of financing and logistics, it's always going to be a massive headache.”

Tess Dunham, a partner at Kahn, Soares & Conway LLP, has found on her family ranching operation that it can also be expensive to install off-stream watering systems to prevent cattle from entering waterways, since ranchers must rely on wind or solar power to generate the water pump.

“It sounds great in theory to say, ‘Keep the cows out of the riparian areas’,” said Dunham. “But it's also important to understand it has to be realistic.”

Her client, Wood Family Livestock in Bridgeport Valley, has spent “a tremendous amount of time, money and effort” on off-stream watering, fencing, rotational grazing and other practices to reduce water quality impacts.

“I just want to make sure that what is happening doesn't get overlooked,” said Dunham, who worried about the board highlighting comments from people who “drive down the road and may not know the full story associated with that ranching operation.”

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