State endorses Point Reyes water contamination plan

The California Coastal Commission narrowly voted on Thursday to endorse a plan to curb water contamination caused by private cattle and dairy ranches that rent parkland.

The commission voted 6-5 to approve the National Park Service's strategies, which call for increasing or restarting testing of creeks and waterways near ranches; requirements for ranch operators to invest in improvements to reduce pollution as a condition of their leases; and more cooperation with state and local regulatory agencies.

Anne Altman, deputy superintendent of the seashore, told the commission that the water quality strategies represent a substantial shift in the expectations and oversight of ranch operations.

"While the responsibilities may not have been clear in the past, the completion of this plan clearly establishes ranch operators as responsible for meeting the terms and conditions of the agricultural lease permits," she told the commission. "All ranch operations will be held to the same standard in the stewardship of park natural and cultural resources."

Opponents of continued ranching in the seashore, including many of the commissioners, said the park's strategies lack clear, enforceable timelines for ranchers to correct pollution issues and do not specify secure funding sources to ensure monitoring continues in the long term.

"Given the magnitude of the water quality problems and the park service's historic inability or unwillingness to deal with these massive problems, we don't see how this strategy can succeed in restoring water quality as required by the California Coastal Act," National Wildlife Federation counsel Melissa Samet told the commission.

The water quality strategies were a condition of the commission's narrow endorsement last year of the park's plan to extend ranch lease terms from five years to 20 years as well as to allow park staff to shoot some of the park's tule elk to prevent conflicts with ranches.

The park initially submitted its water quality strategies in April, which the commission unanimously rejected because members said they lacked details on enforcement triggers and priority areas.

While the commission ultimately approved the updated strategies on Thursday at the recommendation of its staff, all commissioners voiced their concern for the ranches' ongoing impacts on the environment — including recent findings on sewage leaks and discharging as well as manure entering park waterways.

"We shouldn't be tolerating these water quality impacts," said Commissioner Steve Padilla, who ultimately voted to support the park service's strategies.

Commissioners who opposed the continued ranching nearly succeeded in an earlier vote on Thursday to have the commission reconsider its endorsement of the park's ranch and elk plan. The motion failed in a 5-6 vote, but the opposing commissioners said they were still open to the idea if the park's water quality plan does not show desirable results.

"The performance over the next year is going to be really imperative about where we end up when we get to that place," Commissioner Mike Wilson said.

What ultimately tipped the commission in favor of the plan was the commission's lack of authority to prevent the park service from following through on its elk and ranch management plan except through a potential lawsuit. Commissioners who supported the park plan said they would rather have a seat at the table and have oversight than spend the time in a courtroom.

"What I do have fear of is a yearslong process that continues to pollute, continues to put our natural environment at risk in this way as it's winding its way through the courts," said Commissioner Meagan Harmon.

The seashore is one of the few national parks that lease land to private ranching. Seventeen beef cattle and dairy ranches lease about 28,000 acres of the 86,000 acres of land in the Point Reyes National Seashore and neighboring Golden Gate National Recreation Area just to the south. About 5,000 cattle live within these parklands.

With the park service's management plan currently being challenged in federal court, the park is set to issue temporary two-year leases to ranch operators this month that will include requirements for ranch operators to correct any issues found on their ranches. Consequences for not doing so, after the park gives initial warnings, could include fines of up to $100 per day, citations, reduction in cattle or grazing areas, or revocation of the lease, Altman said.

Work began this year after state and county officials worked with the park service to begin identifying violations, including missing or faulty septic systems, that resulted in raw sewage being discharged onto ranch property, Altman said.

Park service staff told the commission that they have restarted water quality monitoring in waterways near ranches outside the Tomales Bay watershed that had not been monitored since 2013. When this long-term monitoring finds high levels of pollution such as fecal bacteria, park staff said they will perform more tests at nearby ranches to find the source and have ranch owners make changes to address those issues under specific timelines.

The park service also plans to publish an annual report on water quality tests and corrective actions as well as to update its plan each year. The commission is also requiring the park service to present its findings, enforcement actions and funding plans to the commission on an annual basis.

Several commissioners, however, stated that the only solution to addressing these issues is removing the cattle altogether.

"I think this is a travesty," said Commissioner Dayna Bochco, who opposed the park's plans.

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