By Addie Gottwald
On Wednesday July 11, the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board knocked its gavel and the cowboy hats were shed from the audience.
The workshop, held in South Lake Tahoe, brought together not only ranchers from the Bridgeport Valley but also members of various organizations including the US Forest Service, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the California Rangeland Trust, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and the California Cattlemen’s Association.
The public workshop allowed any interested parties to fill out speaker cards and address the board with concerns involving the bacteria standards for Bridgeport Valley and the potential renewal of a 2007 General Conditional Waiver of Waste Discharge Requirements. The consensus of the contributors and the Board was that a certain proposed bacterial count (20 fecal coliform colonies per 100 mL of water) was too restrictive and with the renewal of the waiver, cattle should be permitted to continue grazing the valley.
Previously Bridgeport Valley’s water was subjected to a 20 fecal coliform colonies (FCU) per 100 mL standard. This standard was later seen as unreasonable and in 2006 the county was given an interim objective of 200 FCU per 100 mL. Even though the 20 FCU objective was never enforced, the Board was given power to possibly reinstate the lower FCU standard.
Many ranchers have taken action to modify their graze lands in order to improve their water quality prior to this week’s meeting. Changes in cattle management including increased fencing, enhanced vegetation fielding, and improved water crossings, have improved fecal levels in the area. Board member, Dr. Amy Horne, offered “kudos” to Centennial Ranches and others who made such efforts. Ranchers described spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for this project, yet there was still no hope that the cattle would be permitted to graze any longer if the 20 FCU standard were secured.
Bill Thomas of Centennial Ranches reported that water coming off the slopes, having just arrived in the valley, often exceeds the 20 FCU, and even some water is more than 200 FCU. Once the water has left the Bridgeport Reservoir, its bacterial level is under federal standards. Only the water sampled on private lands below the slopes and above the reservoir are above the federal standard of 200 FCU, but since these lands are private and cannot be lawfully used for recreation by the public, Thomas and other ranchers such as John Lacey saw no need for these waters to be subjected to a standard that is ten times more restrictive than the standards for the rest of California’s water.
George Milovich, the Inyo/Mono Agriculture Commissioner, stressed his worries that if the 20 FCU standard were enforced, the 140-year history of grazing in Bridgeport County would be extinguished, devastating the county’s economy and discontinuing business of the multiple generations.
Kevin Kester of the California Cattlemen’s Association described the standard of 20 FCU/100 mL as “physically and financially unattainable,” and it wasn’t long after Kester’s and others’ appeals to the Board that Board member Dr. Horne stated, “We know that this 20 standard will change,” expressing her belief that the valley should not be held to this strict objective.
Board member Peter Pumphrey stated, “Clearly it’s poor policy to have a standard that is generally agreed to be unreasonable.”
While the Board agreed that the valley should be subjected to the regional bacterial standard of 200 FCU opposed to the original 20 FCU, the Board encouraged cooperation between the ranchers and staff of the Water Board to continue in order to manage bacterial levels and increase communication.
Margo Parks of the California Cattlemen’s Association spoke about her concern that even with the renewal of the waiver that lasts five years, there would be no guarantee that the valley would be forever exempt from the impossible 20 FCU standard. She stressed a “push for an amendment in the basin plan” that would allow the ranchers to secure the 200 FCU standard in the future.
Few other changes were made in the renewal of the waiver, including adjustments in required water samples each month and certain phrasing of the waiver, but overall the concerns of the public were well-heard by the Board in this workshop.