The California Department of Public Health has banned harvest in a portion of one of Hog Island Oyster Company’s leases in Tomales Bay after two water quality tests taken during the last year failed to meet safety levels for fecal coliform bacteria.

The prohibition took effect in September, and a sanitary survey of the bay released by the health department last month said it will remain in place until further testing confirms the area is safe for harvest. 

Critics of the closure, which was brought up at a Lagunitas Creek Technical Advisory Council meeting last week, note that 11 of the 13 tests taken over the year were within safety standards. Gordon Bennett, the chair of the advisory council, noted in a letter to the health department that the closure seemed based on weak data; he also raised concerns about a lapse in the monitoring of cattle waste impacts from ranches around the bay, a program that fell victim to state staffing cuts but which will start up again this winter.

The closure will be discussed at next week’s meeting of the Tomales Bay Shellfish Technical Advisory Committee; the group was established in 1993, after the passage of the state Shellfish Protection Act, but it has been dormant for the past few years. (Farhad Ghodrati, an environmental scientist with the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, which recently sent out an announcement on the coming meeting, said the group went on hiatus because there was not a pressing need for it and the board was focused on the grazing waiver program and administering grants for creek restoration projects. It it starting up because of “a renewed interest in the community on these issues as of recently.”) 

Terry Sawyer, one of the co-owners of Hog Island, said he believed the sample size was too small to base a closure on, but emphasized that he is dedicated to ensuring the safety of his shellfish. “There’s not a lot of area for growing in the bay, so we want to keep what we have available for growing product. But you want to make sure it’s a safe product to be grown,” he said. 

Though he wasn’t sure what the potential economic impact could be, the area now closed to harvest comprises about 10 or 15 acres—roughly 10 percent of his acreage. Mr. Sawyer said there were roughly six million clams and half a million oysters in the prohibited area.

Hog Island is working with the health department to establish more water monitoring stations—where samples will be tested at the company’s expense—so the oyster company can reopen the area. Mr. Sawyer is also hoping for rain, because the health department wants information on fecal coliform levels during both wet and dry weather before reopening the area.

There are seven shellfish companies in Tomales Bay, each of which is responsible for water quality monitoring stations in their lease areas. Hog Island has four separate leases, though some have more than one monitoring station. Samples are pulled about once a month and driven to a lab in Sonoma for testing.

The health department installed three new monitoring stations in 2013 at one Hog Island lease close to where Walker Creek empties in Tomales Bay to monitor fecal coliform levels, according to the recently published “Twelve-Year Sanitary Survey Report,” a technical report on the bay that is required by the National Shellfish Sanitation Program.

Stations near Walker Creek, the survey notes, have historically had the highest levels of fecal coliform; they don’t consistently breach state standards but they do experience occasional surges. (The department was unable to respond by press time to queries about the report and whether they had linked fecal coliform levels to cattle.)

Between September 2013 and September 2014, two of 13 samples—or 15 percent—at one of the three new stations exceeded the health department’s fecal coliform threshold. It’s a small number, but according to department rules, if over 10 percent of water station samples violate state standards, shellfish in the lease area cannot be harvested. 

The samples were taken during the wet season, the report notes, when fecal coliform levels are typically higher. But the report says because they weren’t collected immediately after rainfall events, that could mean “the area is unpredictably impacted by nonpoint sources”—in other words, any waste that doesn’t come from an industrial or a sewage treatment plant—“other than of fecal pollution.” It also notes that the 13 samples were pulled during a year when little rain fell overall, leading the department to worry that samples could be worse during years of normal rainfall.

But David Lewis, the director for the University of California Cooperative Extension in Marin who has experience in watershed management, noted that huge February rains appear to have triggered the bad tests. “It helped us with drought issues, but just appreciate that can happen anytime. When you get more than three inches in 24 hours, that can trigger extreme weather events,” he said. 

In a letter to the health department commenting on the sanitary survey, Mr. Bennett said the prohibition was “based on a sample size that is too small from [a water quality station] that is too distant” from the proposed closure.

Mr. Sawyer said the area now off-limits has always been problematic. Those 10 or 15 acres used to be subject to seasonal closures, he said. But the health department ended those closures in 2012; now it requires tests every month of the year and adds more testing requirements if too many show high fecal coliform levels. In order to get the area reopened, Mr. Sawyer said he will likely install three more water quality stations.

“This is not cheap,” he said. Installing and testing three more stations, he added, “is not a small impact. That’s just the samples, not including the boat labor and time and someone driving it to Sonoma County.”

Fecal coliform issues haven’t just affected Mr. Sawyer. In 2012, a small sliver of Point Reyes Oyster Company’s lease near Walker Creek was also put on the prohibited list because of some poor tests on another oyster farmer’s lease. According to owner Martin Strain, subsequent tests from a new water quality station he installed haven’t shown problems. But the prohibition remains, he said, because there haven’t been enough rains for the health department to take tests after storms so that they would feel comfortable deeming it safe.

It was a tiny closure and did not affect his business, he said, adding, “Nevertheless, no one wants to lose acreage.”

Mr. Sawyer hopes that the lease issue, which comes as the shellfish advisory group is getting into gear again, might spur a coalition of groups to help pay for the testing. “It shouldn’t be just us sampling. It should be a number of different groups. They can’t because they just don’t have the money, but hopefully this generates some energy in that direction,” he said.

Grazing program

The sanitary survey prompted a brief discussion at Friday’s meeting of the creek technical advisory committee about the Tomales Bay Grazing Waiver Program, a program instituted six years ago by the water quality board. The program provides nearby ranches a waiver for expensive nonpoint (or cattle waste) discharge permits if they submit plans to curb cattle waste entering the watershed. 

Mr. Lewis, who was not at the meeting, said there was significant participation in the program. “From a paperwork perspective, there is 88 percent participation in [the program]. There’s a waiting list of ranchers in line who have risen their hands to participate… in implementing practices to better manage the watershed and livestock,” he said.

But the sanitary report asserted that it was “not clear” how stringently the water board’s program was enforced and it could find “no indications of inspection or sampling” of program participants.

Mr. Bennett said that although ranchers file reports, “no one actually goes out to the ranch to see if the reports have any basis in reality.”

Mr. Strain, of Point Reyes Oyster Company, also fears there are dairies around the watershed allowing too much cattle waste into the bay. The positive fecal coliform tests, he said, “shows there a lot of work that needs to be done in the watershed” and that the government needs to do more to keep waste out of creeks.

Leslie Ferguson, a member of the committee and an employee at the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, said there were once two inspectors but that the board had not been monitoring for some time because of staffing losses; however, the board recently added staff and plans to undertake inspections this winter. She also said the board had provided a couple million dollars in grants to agencies to undertake restoration work with ranchers around the watershed.

The Marin Resource Conservation District is one of those agencies. Executive director Nancy Scolari told the Light that after the grazing waiver program was implemented six years ago, a good portion of the district’s work has been helping ranchers keep livestock away from tributaries to Walker Creek, such as by building fences.

But despite grants from the water board—and from numerous other agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Coastal Conservancy—she said there is never enough funding to undertake all the projects they would like to pursue. (A single restoration project can cost roughly between $50,000 to $100,000, Ms. Scolari said.) 

“The ranchers are willing and wanting to do the work, but we’re never able to fully accommodate the folks who are signing up for projects. It’s a competitive process they go through each time. Even if they want to do the work, they’re not high enough priority, so each year we apply for more money,” she said.


The Tomales Bay Shellfish Technical Advisory Committee will hold a joint meeting with the Tomales Bay Watershed Council on Tuesday, Nov. 18 from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Inverness Yacht Club. The public is welcome.


This article was corrected on Nov. 16. The Marin Resource Conservation District does not build ponds, as a previous version of this article stated, but it does develop alternative water sources for cattle as part of fencing projects designed to protect streams. In addition, the owner of Point Reyes Oyster Company is Martin Strain, not Martin Seiler, who works with Tomales Bay Oyster Company.