Point Reyes water quality tests find high bacteria levels


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

The tests were performed by Douglas Lovell of the Streamborn environmental engineering firm in Berkeley. Environmental organizations that raised funds to hire Lovell said the test results are the latest proof that the National Park Service is not efficiently addressing water pollution caused by private cattle and dairy ranches that lease land from the park.

“If Yosemite had private ranching, this amount of unchecked pollution, people would be losing their minds across the country,” said Scott Webb of the Olema-based Turtle Island Restoration Network, the lead sponsor of the tests and an opponent of ranching in the seashore.

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

The strategies were a condition of the commission’s decision in 2021 to endorse the park’s plan to extend ranching leases from five-year terms to up to 20 years and to allow park staff to shoot some free-roaming tule elk to prevent conflict with ranches.

In April, the commission voted to reject the park service’s initial strategies submitted earlier this year, stating they lacked details on identifying priority areas for cleanup, creating benchmarks for restoration projects and specifying enforcement actions. The revised strategies were submitted in August and the commission staff is recommending their approval.

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

The new water quality tests were performed from late October 2021 through late January. The tests follow two days of water quality testing in the seashore 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.

The latest tests were performed at the same locations over a longer four-month period to align with testing standards used by the State Water Resources Control Board, the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to Lovell.

The tests found 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. One site at Schooner Creek, which flows into Drakes Estero, had fecal coliform levels that were 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 concentrations at all 13 of its testing sites decreased with the use of improved pollution control methods on ranches, resulting in a six-fold increase in 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 a partnership with the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, a nonprofit, to monitor beach water quality at Drakes Beach and Drakes Estero. The results from tests during the dry months of 2021 found Drakes Beach had adequate water quality during both dry and wet weather, while Drakes Estero had high levels of fecal coliform during wet weather.

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

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

As to whether her organization would consider litigation related to water quality in the seashore, Cunningham said, “All I can say is there always is potential for future actions if these hazardous conditions continue.”

David Lewis, director of Marin County’s University of California Cooperative Extension, has been working on watershed management issues, including conducting studies in Point Reyes. Lewis said he does not question the Lovell study’s methodology or results, but stated that bacteria levels can be highly variable in watersheds regardless of whether they are near agricultural operations.

Lewis said the monitoring work by Lovell is akin to the monitoring work the park service is now performing, which also includes collaborating with county and state agencies to inspect ranches. The park service is also set to issue temporary two-year leases to ranchers in the park as the federal lawsuit challenging its management plan continues. The leases will include requirements such as ranchers to make site-specific improvements to reduce manure runoff. The interim two-year leases are under review and set to take effect on Sept. 15, according to the park service.

“When I look at the strategy the park service submitted, now it’s got a significant amount of detail and represents a lot of the management activities the park service is taking,” Lewis said.

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

“We need to hold these folks accountable,” he said.

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

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

David Evans, a fourth-generation rancher in Point Reyes and chief executive officer of Marin Sun Farms, said he supports the park service strategies.

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

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

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

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

The park service’s water quality strategies are at bit.ly/3KJInR4.

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



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