Berkeley parks

Point Reyes water quality tests reveal high levels of bacteria

New water quality tests conducted on multiple waterways in the Point Reyes National Seashore have revealed dangerous levels of fecal bacteria, including up to 170 times the state health standard for E. coli at one site.

The tests were carried out by Douglas Lovell of the environmental engineering firm Streamborn in Berkeley. Environmental organizations that raised money to hire Lovell said the test results are the latest evidence that the National Park Service is not effectively dealing with water pollution caused by private cattle and milk ranches that rent out park land.

“If Yosemite had a private farm, this amount of pollution would go out of control and people across the country would lose their minds,” said Scott Webb of the Olema-based Turtle Island Restoration Network, the testing’s main sponsor and an opponent of the test. breeding in the country. shore.

The findings come days before the California Coastal Commission’s meeting, scheduled for Thursday, when it plans to review the National Park Service’s strategies to reduce impacts on water quality and pollution from the ranches. The plan includes more frequent water quality testing and requirements for breeders to upgrade facilities.

The strategies were a condition of the commission’s decision in 2021 to approve the park’s plan to extend ranching leases from five years to 20 years and allow park staff to shoot free-roaming elk to avoid disputes with the ranches.

In April, the committee voted dismiss initial park service strategies submitted earlier this year, saying they lacked detail on identifying priority areas for cleanup, creating benchmarks for restoration projects and specifying enforcement actions. The revised strategies were submitted in August and commission staff recommends their approval.

Melanie Gunn, a Point Reyes National Seashore official, declined to comment on the new water quality study and water quality strategies due to ongoing litigation challenging the ranch management plan and elk in the park.

The new water quality tests were carried out from the end of October 2021 to the end of January. The tests follow two days of seaside water quality testing conducted by Lovell in January 2021, which also showed high levels of fecal bacteria in five waterways: South Kehoe Creek, Kehoe Lagoon , Abbotts Lagoon, East Schooner Creek and the main stem of Schooner Creek.

Latest testing was conducted at the same locations over a longer period of four months to align with testing standards used by the State Water Resources Control Board, San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, and US Environmental Protection Agency, according to Lovell.

Testing revealed bacteria levels that exceeded state standards at Kehoe Lagoon, Home Ranch Creek, Schooner Creek, Home Ranch Lagoon, North Kehoe Creek and two unnamed creeks that flow into Drakes Bay. A site at Schooner Creek, which empties into Drakes Estero, had fecal coliform levels 174 times higher than state health standards.

The National Park Service had previously monitored these waterways from 2000 to 2013. A park analysis of these tests in 2020 found that bacteria levels at all 13 test sites decreased with the use of improved methods of water control. pollution on ranches, resulting in a six-year decline. times more water samples meeting state health criteria.

The park has since restarted monitoring at these locations this year as part of its adoption of the updated Ranch and Elk Management Plan. Part of this monitoring includes partnering with the West Marin Environmental Action Committee, a non-profit organization, to monitor beach water quality at Drakes Beach and Drakes Estero. Test results during the dry months of 2021 revealed that Drakes Beach had adequate water quality in dry and wet weather, while Drakes Estero had high levels of fecal coliforms in wet weather.

Laura Cunningham, California director of the environmental group Western Watersheds Project, said that if some of the areas Lovell tested are not used for swimming, runoff after rains can continue for a few days and carry polluted water to the beaches where people bathe.

The Western Watersheds Project is one of three environmental groups that filed a federal lawsuit earlier this year challenging the National Park Service’s plan to extend ranching leases and cull tule elk. The groups are advocating for a plan that will eventually phase out all 17 ranches from the park.

On whether his organization would consider seaside water quality litigation, Cunningham said: “All I can say is that there is always potential for future action. if these dangerous conditions continue.”

David Lewis, director of cooperative extension at the University of California, Marin County, has worked on watershed management issues, including conducting studies at Point Reyes. Lewis said he doesn’t question the methodology or findings of the Lovell study, but said bacteria levels can be highly variable in watersheds whether or not they are near watersheds. agricultural exploitations.

Lewis said Lovell’s monitoring work is akin to the monitoring work the park service currently does, which also includes working with county and state agencies to inspect ranches. The park service is also set to issue temporary two-year leases to park ranchers as the federal lawsuit challenging its management plan continues. Leases will include requirements such as ranchers to make site-specific improvements to reduce manure runoff. The two-year interim leases are being reviewed and are expected to take effect Sept. 15, according to the parks department.

“When I look at the strategy submitted by the park service, it now contains a significant amount of detail and represents a large part of the park service’s management activities,” Lewis said.

While Webb said the park’s new strategies are an improvement, he said his organization would not support them as he said they lack specific enforcement actions and triggers if ranchers do not reduce their pollution. .

“We have to hold these people accountable,” he said.

Ranches have existed in the Point Reyes area since the mid-19th century. The Point Reyes National Seashore, established in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy and now visited by more than 2 million people each year, is one of the few national parks to lease land for private agriculture.

Congress spent tens of millions of dollars buying up the ranchers’ land, but allowed the ranchers to continue operating in the park under leases. Ranches make up 28,000 of the 86,000 acres of Point Reyes National Seashore and Golden Gate National Recreation Area in Marin.

David Evans, a fourth-generation Point Reyes rancher and general manager of Marin Sun Farms, said he supports the park’s service strategies.

“I am confident that the park is working to address the water quality issues in the park and put in place a structure that will provide a baseline for testing, monitoring and any necessary corrective action,” said said Evans.

A joint letter from Western United Dairies and the California Cattlemen’s Association says ranchers now recognize their responsibility to protect park resources.

“These farms and ranches are and continue to be forward-thinking and innovative in the best practices they implement to sustain coastal grasslands, provide a local food source for the communities of West Marin and the Great North Bay Bay, and protect the unique flora and fauna of the North Coast,” the letter reads.

Water quality test results are online at bit.ly/3RsPWgY.

The Park Service’s water quality strategies are bit.ly/3KJInR4.

Oyster shells line the beach at Schooner Bay on the Point Reyes National Seashore, Monday, Aug. 1, 2022. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)