Point Reyes dairies targeted over water quality concerns

Looming inspections bring renewed attention to ranching operations at the protected seashore as the National Park Service contemplates 20-year lease extensions amid pushback from environmental groups.|

A regional water quality board has launched an investigation into the management practices of three Point Reyes dairies after testing sponsored by environmental advocates uncovered polluted waterways near the more than century-old operations.

The Kehoe Dairy, McClure Dairy and M&J McClelland Dairy have been targeted for on-site inspections by the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, officials confirmed this week, a move that could lead to greater monitoring.

The dairies, located in the northern half of the 70,000-acre Point Reyes National Seashore, each drain to the Pacific Ocean, either via Kehoe Beach to the north or Abbotts Lagoon – popular destinations for hikers and beachgoers.

Water samples collected in late January at multiple locations near the dairies showed elevated levels of bacteria, including coliform bacteria, a key indicator for the presence of fecal matter, according to a civil engineer’s report that was later reviewed by the water quality agency.

“All of these, even the creeks, drain into areas where people might swim,” said Xavier Fernandez, planning director for the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board. “So, it is a concern. We have to go inspect to see if there’s any violation.”

The looming inspections bring renewed attention to ranching operations at the protected seashore as the National Park Service contemplates 20-year lease extensions with two dozen operators amid pushback from environmental groups.

Although the investigation could lead to heightened monitoring for the dairies, that’s unlikely to satisfy advocates who have long sought to jettison the thousands of milking cows that have re-shaped the landscape over the course of generations.

“Whatever one thinks of cattle and dairy ranching, there is mounting evidence that the thousands of cows at Point Reyes Seashore do great harm to its land, waterways and air quality too — in direct contradiction of a national park unit’s charter and reason for being,” The TreeSpirit Project founder Jack Gescheidt, who spearheaded the recent testing, said in an email.

Phone messages left with each of the dairies, including the Kehoe Dairy and McClure Dairy, which process their raw milk at Clover Sonoma creamery in Petaluma, were not returned.

Paul Sousa, the director of environmental services for Western United Dairies, works with Point Reyes dairies, and he said water quality has improved during the past two decades.

“The farmers in the park care about these issues very deeply,” Sousa said via an email Wednesday afternoon, after the Argus-Courier’s print deadline. “They have made great improvements over the years, and will continue to do so. We must work together to make these improvements for the farmers and ranchers and for the public.”

Point Reyes National Seashore is home to six dairies and 2,675 cows, including more than 1,500 fully grown, milking cows, according to regional water board documents obtained by the Argus-Courier.

The region’s dairy legacy, which stretches deep into the 1800s, became a national park legacy in the middle of the 20th Century, when ranching families sold their sprawling acreage to the federal government in exchange for the option to lease the land back from the National Park Service. Ranch leases now occupy 18,000 acres of the Point Reyes National Seashore, a 20% share of the park that also welcomes 2.2 million visitors each year.

Amid the pending park service renewal of 24 leases at Point Reyes, and at Golden Gate National Recreation Area, environmental advocates have pressured government officials to detach dairy and beef cattle operations from the parklands.

In what’s thought to be the first round of water quality testing in the Kehoe Creek watershed since the National Park Service discontinued its program in 2013, a hired civil engineer in late January found elevated levels of E. coli bacteria, coliform bacteria and enterococci bacteria, according to the report.

“We did the testing now because we’re growing increasingly frustrated with park service inaction,” Gescheidt said in a phone interview Monday. “No matter how egregious the (violations) we document, they ignore us and wait for us to go away.”

Water quality and park service officials say the samples, collected after moderate rainfall, represent the worst case scenario for the presence of pollutants that could be washed into stream beds via early season rainfall. They say the results are concerning, but not surprising.

Fernandez said the single-event sample would not meet the threshold for determining compliance with water quality standards, as that determination requires five tests during a six-week period.

Gescheidt, who worked with In Defense of Animals and Western Watersheds Project to hire a licensed civil engineer for the water quality testing, acknowledged the study represented a lone snapshot of water quality.

“This is not a replacement for thorough testing that should be going on continually in the park,” Gescheidt said. “At no point should any snapshot be this polluted.”

In the wake of the third-party testing, regional water quality investigators will work to determine if the best management practices outlined in agreements permitting dairy operations at the seashore are being followed, Fernandez said. If not, the water board to re-categorize the dairies as high-risk facilities, which would require additional monitoring and escalate reporting requirements and costs for the operators.

Melanie Gunn, outreach coordinator with the National Park Service, said the results hewed closely to previous testing done at that time of year, but she added that the park service may reinstitute its 13-site monitoring program in the area in light of the results.

“It’s absolutely an ongoing concern,” said Gunn, adding that the park service has outlined dozens of best management practices since the early 1960s. “Over long periods of time, we’re trying to improve the water quality in all areas of the park where there’s ranching. It’s one of our big focuses.”

Tyler Silvy is editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. Reach him at, 707-776-8458, or @tylersilvy on Twitter.

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