Private tests show bad water quality near park ranches

03/24/2021

Water quality testing commissioned by two groups lobbying for the end of ranching in the Point Reyes National Seashore shows fecal contamination exceeding federal recreational standards in several waterways feeding the Pacific Ocean. In response, seashore personnel point to their nearly finalized general management amendment, which requires water quality improvements.

The tests from two rainy January days included samples from and near Kehoe Lagoon, Abbotts Lagoon and Schooner Creek, and showed exceedances in levels of E. coli and Enterococcus—bacteria that serve as common indicators for fecal contamination. A supporting dataset for the area is lacking: The San Francisco Bay Water Quality Regional Water Control Board is not conducting regular sampling, the seashore has not tested there since 2013 and the sites are not part of the county’s seasonal ocean and bay water quality monitoring program.

“This is a snapshot, red-flagging that there is a problem,” said Laura Cunningham, the state director for the Western Watershed Project, which commissioned the testing and was one of three nonprofits that sued the park service in 2016 with the intent of ending ranching. “We never intended for these results to be published in a peer-reviewed study. It shouldn’t be citizens running out there and paying for it ourselves. The park needs to do its job, and the ranchers need to clean up—that was the goal of the testing.”  

The Western Watershed Project and In Defense of Animals, which helped stage several protests on ranchlands last year, crowdfunded the testing, which was conducted by Douglas Lovell, a geoenvironmental engineer. The groups sent the results to the water board, the seashore, Marin’s environmental health department, and the California Coastal Commission, which is currently evaluating whether the new management plan amendment is consistent with the California Coastal Act.

Xavier Fernandez, head of planning for the regional water board, said the agency planned to follow up on the tests and visit the nearby ranches. The board sets waste discharge requirements for the six seashore dairies, including three in the area of concern, and Mr. Fernandez said they have all been in compliance for at least the past three years. The standards currently involve best management practices; regular water sampling is impending, he said.       

Seashore spokeswoman Melanie Gunn told the Light the test results were “in line with what we might expect after a rain event at this time of year.” 

She said the ranchland management strategies in the seashore’s new amendment, some of which have been implemented since regular testing stopped in 2013, will help clean up the water. These strategies—including fencing, hardened stream crossings and the creation of separate water systems for cattle—have led to dramatic improvements in the last two decades in the Olema Creek watershed, which has been the park’s focus.

Dr. Arti Kundu, who directs the county’s seasonal monitoring program, expressed several concerns about credibility of the samples—such as whether they all made it to the lab within a standard period before the bacteria had time to grow—and about drawing conclusions without more testing.

“They did the sampling across two days when it was wet, and that won’t show the exact picture. The number of samples taken is a very small set to come up with any general statement,” Dr. Kundu said. “The monitoring has to be regular because there is so much variability: What you see in the morning won’t be the same as the afternoon or the evening before.”  

The lack of water quality monitoring on the oceanside of the seashore was identified as a problem by the coastal commission, which will consider its consistency determination for the amendment on April 22, after postponing the item in January. 

The commission is one of many agencies that must review the amendment before it can be finalized. The amendment outlines how the park service will manage around 28,000 acres within the seashore, and a record of decision must be filed before mid-July.

The coastal commission—which does not have jurisdiction over federal lands but considered the amendment for its spillover effects on coastal resources—has so far made no objection to the proposed 20-year ranch leases, tightened control of the free-ranging elk, or maintenance of coastal access. The amendment proposed improvements for the creeks and streams that flow to Abbotts Lagoon, Drakes Estero and directly to the Pacific Ocean, and on those plans, the commission wants more details. Commission staff requested that the park provide a water quality assessment plan that includes a strategy and timeline for assessing and improving water quality, a proposed sampling methodology for collecting quantitative water quality data, and a provision that a detailed report would be made to the coastal commission each year. 

The sites that the park service has monitored in the past in the Abbotts, Kehoe and Drakes Estero watersheds are in the same approximate location as those recently commissioned by the two environmental groups. 

The independent testing found that E. coli levels at Kehoe Lagoon were up to 40 times greater than the standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency for recreational contact such as safe swimming; for the other six locations, exceedances were between two times and 30 times the standard. Enterococcus levels came up 300 times the standard at Kehoe Lagoon, and between three and 90 times at the six others. 

Marin County has an ocean and bay water quality testing program that runs seasonally between April and October and includes weekly sampling, yet none of these sites are part of that program. Site selection is based on certain state criteria, such as number of visitors to an area or proximity to a storm drain. Whenever there is an exceedance—which there are regularly at Chicken Ranch Beach, the Green Bridge in Point Reyes Station and the Inkwells in Lagunitas—the county posts advisories to warn against swimming.  

After the county was sent the independent study results this month, it posted warnings. Typically, it leaves signs up for a week, but the county removed them after two days, handing the matter to the park service. 

The park’s final environmental impact statement for the general management plan amendment summarizes what is known about water quality in the troubled area from sampling taken previously. 

“Data collection in Kehoe Creek between 1998 and 2005 has shown elevated levels of fecal indicator bacteria, nutrients, and sediment with stormwater runoff from nearby dairy operations and pastureland contributing to the observed quantities,” the document states. “High fecal indicator bacteria counts during this period were also observed in the Abbotts Lagoon watershed—many from samples collected adjacent to dairy operations.” Similar observations were made for Drakes Estero and Drakes Bay.

In 2000, the park and ranchers started making some changes. “These activities included the installation of a new waste storage facility, and other infrastructure improvements to control runoff at both I Ranch and J Ranch dairies, as well as construction of a new loafing barn at I Ranch between from 2004 to 2006. Prior to the installation of the loafing barn at I Ranch, no shelter was available for the cattle during the winter,” the document says.

These changes led to improvements, though problems persisted. Prior to 2007, only 6 percent of water samples met water quality objectives for fecal indicator bacteria; between 2007 and 2013, 38 percent of samples met objectives.  

Overall, an analysis of water quality data collected from 1999 to 2013 in the Abbotts, Kehoe and Drakes Estero watersheds found that fecal indicator bacteria concentrations declined at the 13 water quality sites that were downstream of changes implemented on the grazed lands. One site in the Drakes Estero watershed showed a slight positive trend.

The park service’s new amendment would implement the best management practices that have been shown to increase water quality throughout the around 28,000 acres leased for ranching, using the framework developed for the Olema Creek, which is one of three main Tomales Bay tributaries.

Since 2007, the bay has been regulated as an impaired waterbody by the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, leading to significant conservation efforts by a host of regulatory agencies and conservation groups. To date, water quality monitoring and conservation work on the ranchlands in the seashore has focused on that watershed. 

A study published in 2019 by the seashore and the University of California’s Marin cooperative extension shows that fecal coliform levels in the Olema Creek watershed dropped by 95 percent over 19 years—the result of local ranches implementing new best management practices around streams. 

Ms. Cunningham of the Western Watershed Project told the Light last week that members of her organization met with seashore hydrologists and Craig Kenkel, who started as the park’s new superintendent in January. While Ms. Cunningham disapproves of the amendment, she remains hopeful about the improvements it would bring.

“My long-term goal is still to get cows out of the seashore, but this was the first time I’ve felt like the park staff and the superintendent could actually work with us on improving and compromising on things with a more short-term goal,” she said. “The preferred alternative is still the preferred alternative, but it will also allow us to fix things. Times are changing.”