Excuses and deflections over Point Reyes water quality

07/28/2021

Apologism is contagious and smokescreens travel fast on a windy peninsula. Last January, environmental groups requisitioned independent water quality tests downstream from some of the ranches in Point Reyes National Seashore, at popular, publicly accessed sites that drain into the Pacific, including Kehoe and Abbotts Lagoons. The results were off the charts for E. coli and other pathogens. Seashore officials immediately moved to discredit the tests, and Marin County officials, after initially sanctioning the placement of health hazard signs, quickly fell into line and the signs were hastily removed. Letters and op-eds have since falsely stated the park “refuted” the results and implied they are unreliable citizen science. 

The diversionary sound bite goes like this: A single test, after a rain, doesn’t tell you anything about water quality; that takes repeated measurements over time. (I mean, of course, rainstorms flush massive amounts of contaminants from our national park into the dying ocean—what’s all the excitement about?) But the park service conveniently conflates two purposes of testing: one is to gauge water quality and the other is to measure waste discharge. For the latter, you want to test after a rain. In fact, the regional water quality control boards require dairies under their jurisdiction to test immediately after storms. Those same bodies have published standards for single-sample tests.

But take heart: Hypocrisy is healthy, if our oceans are not. Representative Jared Huffman, a staunch supporter of perpetual ranching in the park, has just introduced the Kelp Act, stating: “Kelp forests along the North Coast have been virtually wiped out, causing serious impacts on our ocean…local communities are working hard to restore these vital ecosystems, and my bill will position the federal government as a partner in these efforts.” No doubt aware of the connection between agricultural runoff, erosion and ocean health, our congressman enjoys a laudatory environmental reputation (if you doubt me, just ask him.) One thing you cannot accuse him of is consistency.

More good news is that red herring populations are healthy. In 2020, the seashore published a study suggesting that best management practices, or B.M.P.s, improved water quality in four ranch-impacted watersheds between 2000 and 2013; it boasted on its website that “water samples met regulatory criteria six times more often” after implementation. Omitted was the fact that before the new practices, legal measurements were found just 6 percent of the time, and afterwards only 38 percent of the time. So the park’s headline, “BMPs Improve Water Quality on the Point Reyes Peninsula,” could more honestly have been “Expensive Best Practices Make Small Dent in Ongoing Pollution.” Contortion aside, why is 2013 data news in 2020? And why did the testing stop in 2013, the year after then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar promised to pursue 20-year leases for the park operations? Well, if you can’t stand the answer, don’t ask the question. 

The damages in the Point Reyes National Seashore are likely illegal under California waste discharge rules and anti-degradation laws. So, where’s the scandal? The problem is the lack of testing. The county says it’s not its jurisdiction and the park unblinkingly says it doesn’t have to do it. The regional boards don’t do it, the California Coastal Commission doesn’t do it, and NOAA says “NOAA-way.” There’s an oversight in our oversight and we’re left with self-regulation in a time of extinction. The one private group that took matters into its hands was reimbursed with derision.  

The officer’s report from the April 2021 meeting of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board says data from the independent tests in the seashore “appear to be of good quality and show high bacteria densities in surface water downstream of ranches that have implemented best management practices…commenters were rightly concerned that water quality…is poor despite existing pollution prevention ranch practices.”

So, if you’re going to stick your head in the sand, don’t do it at Kehoe Beach. Dairies are already failing with current, inadequate mitigation expenditures. According to the park’s environmental impact statement on its general management plan amendment, the preferred Alternative B, which continues ranching in the park with 20-year leases, “would continue to contribute adverse impacts on water resources in the planning area from beef and dairy cattle ranching, manure and nutrient management, and water consumption related to ranching activities.” On the other hand, under Alternative F, which would remove the ranches, “…impacts on water quality would be noticeable, long-term, and beneficial...” In other words, it is the restoration of the natural landscape of Point Reyes that would reliably improve water quality and halt other impairments.

The E.I.S. includes damning analyses for ranching’s impact on air, soil, vegetation and wildlife. Native tule elk will be culled under the preferred plan, public comments on which were more than 95 percent opposed. A final decision was recently deferred by 60 days, until Sept. 12. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland can be reached at (202) 208.3100 and feedback@ios.doi.gov.

 

Ken Bouley is a software developer and a resident of Inverness.