Not much riles Mono County’s cattlemen, but when it comes to water, they’ll stampede when provoked. On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors took up a last minute agenda item added by Assistant County Counsel Stacey Simon regarding a letter of request to the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board.
The letter requests an extension of the 30-day period to provide comments on the Renewal of General Conditional Waiver of Waste Discharge Requirements for Grazing Operations in the East Walker River Watershed (Bridgeport Valley and Tributaries) of the Lahontan Region. The current comment period expired on Tuesday.
At issue is the number of pathogens allowed in the discharge. According to the ranchers, the new specifications call for the ultimate attainment of 20 colonies per 100 milliliters in water discharge from irrigation into the Bridgeport Valley, which is 10 times more stringent than federal standards or indeed those found in any other Regional Water Quality Control Board region of California.
Simon explained that Ranchers’ relationship with the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board has heretofore been amicable and that they had worked together in the past to develop requirements which were acceptable to both parties. A tentative renewal waiver document was issued one month ago for comment, but a recent review by the Ranchers Association’s legal counsel revealed the “renewal” is not a carryover of the previous requirements, but contains new standards, among several other significant changes.
“The County never had a reason to suspect there were any problems, and in fact we had been advised by the Rancher’s Association that, ‘We’ll call you when we need you,’” Simon advised the Board, when asked if the County had any warnings that storm clouds were gathering. The letter is, she posited, indicative of how significant the issue is to the north county ranching community and the Bridgeport Valley area.
“[The ranchers] are looking for something more appropriate to the industry, since 20 colonies is not an attainable standard,” Simon added. Federal Environmental Protection Agency and other state standards allow up to 200 colonies per 100 ml.
Owens Valley and Eastern Sierra rancher Mark Lacey, who has operations near Bridgeport, said the community has been operating under a waiver in place since 2007. Lacey indicated it was his understanding that, per Lahontan, there would be a 10-year trial basis to see how successful ranchers would be at reducing the number of pathogen colonies. “We were taken aback when [Lahontan] ratcheted up the enforcement and regulatory level,” he stated. “It’s got a pretty short fuse on it for as big a move as it is.”
Lacey said the ranchers aren’t asking for any special exemption, but that Lahontan take into consideration practical and beneficial uses as prescribed by the state, particularly as pertains to agriculture, recreation and wildlife. “There are so many regulations in this state, and we’re constantly moving from one to the next to try and address them.”
He pointed out that the ranching community is in the process of doing an economic analysis to examine “potential serious impacts to economy and environment.” While that is being conducted, Lacey said he would ideally like a two-year extension of the previous waiver.
Apart from what he said was a “record that shows we have a history of cooperation,” Lacey pointed to the benefits of the cattle industry’s method of irrigation, which he said has had a positive impact on the area’s ecology. The Reservoir, he indicated, might have some other issues from sources other than agriculture, but that pathogen levels were in compliance.
Benny Romero, another well-known rancher who also serves on the Bridgeport Regional Planning Advisory Committee, emphasized the broader, “bigger impacts” to the county over and above water quality issues.
“Given my experience and time on that land — I’ve managed a huge chunk of Bridgeport land since 1967 — this issue is very serious for our county,” Romero said. “[The] meadow is pretty to look at, and tourists see the Minarets with green land below and stop to take pictures. And that’s because of irrigation.” Irrigation does a lot more than just water cattle, Romero added, referring to what he deemed the “powerful” quality of the grass for feeding livestock.
“This is ridiculous and over the top,” remarked District 4 Supervisor Tim Hansen, who currently represents the ranchers in the north county area. “I’m not sure if it came out of Washington, but it’s sad and harmful.”
Supervisor Byng Hunt opined that the letter could be a result of the Obama Administration’s expansion of the Clean Water Act last year, but nonetheless said he found the waiver’s new language “contentious.”
Simon summarized that both the ranchers and the County need time to ascertain whether Lahontan is really trying to change its conditions or not. “We don’t really know for sure yet,” she told the Board. “The [ranchers’] Intention isn’t to eviscerate clean water standards, but instead to see the implementation of standards that aren’t completely inconsistent with agriculture considerations in the basin.”
The Board voted unanimously to sign the letter of request to Lahontan.