Grazers, regulators address ranching, water quality issues

Central Coast ranchers, resource managers, researchers, and regulators gathered to exchange ideas

The Central Coast Rangelands Coalition held its Fall 2015 Meeting Oct. 15  at two sites in San Benito County. The gathering of ranchers, academics, natural resource managers and policy-makers from a wide swath of the Central Coast region takes place twice each year. 

The meetings are attended by a diverse group of up to 100 participants who tackle complex, often controversial, rangeland issues. The all-day events intentionally mix participants with different perspectives, and always include a field visit to private and publicly-owned rangeland.

The morning session at the Veteran’s Memorial Building in Hollister began with presentations by Leslie Roche and Randy Dahlgren from U.C. Cooperative Extension on their research related to rangeland water quality. Roche highlighted the need to take into account the diversity of California’s rangelands and ranches when considering water quality goals, instead of trying to use a one-size-fits-all approach. Dahlgren presented data that showed the complexity of nutrient dynamics on California’s rangelands, and pointed out that sources other than cattle (such as atmospheric deposition from air pollution) contribute to background nitrogen levels in rangeland soils and streams.

A lively Q&A session followed with the two researchers and staff from the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board. Lisa McCann, environmental program manager for the regional board, attempted to reassure ranchers in the audience by informing them that less than one full-time staff person is assigned to rangeland water quality issues in her office, while most of the staff is assigned to municipalities and irrigated agriculture.

Unconvinced, area rancher John Eade referred to a meeting he attended last year about the recently scrapped GRAP (Grazing Regulatory Action Plan). The proposed plan would have imposed fees on ranchers statewide in an effort to monitor water quality on grazing lands. Eade commented to the Water Board staff, "In Sacramento last spring the guy used the term 'unknowns'.  He said 30 percent. That's what stuck in our minds and I thought he used the term 3 percent for cattle and I just thought, if there's 10 times more [pollutants] coming from the 'unknowns', let's start going after the 'unknowns'.  But the 'unknowns' don't pay fees!"

Ken Harris, executive officer of the regional board, responded by saying, "Grazing is not where we are focusing our attention. You should not be losing sleep over that."  

The UCCE researchers, Roche and Dahlgren, seemed to demonstrate a better grasp of the depth of ranchers’ concerns, when they wrapped up the Q & A session by commenting that they see “lots of opportunity”  to remove some of the Water Board’s 303(d) listings for pollutants in streams that are “hanging over the heads of the grazing community."

Next, participants caravanned to the Mudstone Ranch property in nearby Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreation Area, where they were greeted by Wes Grey, an environmental scientist with the state park, and rancher Joe Morris. The two explained how their grazing lease agreement was developed in 1994 and has evolved over time to the mutual benefit of the State park and Joe’s bottom line.  

When asked by another rancher about the challenges of grazing where public recreation is also taking place, Morris responded,  “I signed up for it. It’s the park’s property, and the public’s property, so yes, there have been some issues with gates not getting shut, and that kind of thing. I like to say that if we are grazing on public lands we have special needs for creativity, but for our business it has been a wonderful opportunity to work with the state parks."

The group then marched in the mid-day sun down a trail and into a seasonal stream bed that cuts through the property. There, they heard details about grazing management practices in the riparian area, and discussed possible positive and negative outcomes related to water quality and quantity in that setting. The group was served lunch from Mansmith's mobile van under the shade of pepper trees. Ranchers, academics, natural resource managers and Regional Water Board staff had the opportunity to get to know each other a little better in a relaxed environment. 

The afternoon session entitled “Rancher and Water Board Conversation” featured the unlikely pairing of Kevin Kester, rancher and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association Policy Division chairman with Ken Harris, executive officer of the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.  

The facilitator asked both men, “How do you feel about the current state of California rangelands?”  After some joking about the format of the panel resembling  “marriage counseling,”  Harris started the conversation by listing his favorite cuts of beef. He then admitted that this was the first cattlemen’s “shindig” he had ever attended, which drew polite laughter from the group.  Harris went on to reiterate his staff’s earlier comments that the Central Coast Regional Board “does not really have lots to do with rangeland. Our priorities are based on threats to the environment and threats to human health, and we just don’t see cattle as playing a big role in either case.”

Harris’ opening comments seemed to go over well with the affable Kevin Kester, a fifth-generation rancher from Parkfield, whose ranch straddles southern Monterey and western Fresno counties. Kester summarized his feelings about California’s rangelands by referring to the four-year drought that has put all of the state’s ranchers in “a tough situation.”  The stock ponds on his own ranch have been dried up since late spring, he informed the group, then added with a grin,  “I’m a big fan of El Nino.”  

Kester went on to illustrate the importance of California’s rangelands by stating that two-thirds of the state’s endangered species occur on private lands, and that 90 percent of the rain in California falls on rangelands. He concluded by stating that “the cost of compliance with regulations could put many of us out of business.”

With the cordless mike passed back to regulator Ken Harris, he acknowledged to the assembled group, “You all have a lot more expertise about managing rangelands than we do.”  He then turned to Kester and asked  in a lighter tone, “Tell me, who is your favorite regional board?”  Kester, whose lands fall within more than one region of the State Water Board, responded, “the Central  Coast [Region 3] of course!”  Kester elaborated that Region 3 staff have a strong track record of being willing to listen to the regulated community, and “that is not the case in all other regions of California.”

A discussion ensued among the two panelists and the larger group about specifics of Regional Water Board sampling methods and their policy for listing impaired (polluted) water bodies.

Harris stressed to the ranchers “You shouldn’t be afraid of a 303(d) listing, because we can’t do anything until a source [of pollution] is identified and a TMDL [total maximum daily load] is established.”  He went on to say that the Water Boards are now de-listing some streams in California, and that “anyone can provide their own data and request that a TMDL be revisited”.

The ranchers in the group did not appear to be reassured.

Lisa McCann added that she did not think new listings for fecal indicators are likely, but that ranchers would be well advised to keep an eye on sediments as a possible area that could receive more regulatory scrutiny in the future.

Kester wrapped up the panel discussion by encouraging his fellow ranchers to “communicate with the Regional Board staff and establish trust relationships, so that when something comes up, there is an actual person you can call to express your concerns.”

During closing remarks for the day, a rangeland consultant from Davis, thanked the Regional Water Board representatives for having the courage to spend an entire day in the company of Central Coast ranchers and advocates.  A modest round of applause followed, underscoring a theme of the day: open and honest dialogue may be a step forward in finding solutions.

Workshop details and more information about the Central Coast Rangelands Coalition can be found at this link:

Karminder Aulakh Brown

Karminder Aulakh Brown is an agricultural conservation consultant and coordinates the San Benito Working Landscapes Group. She has worked for more than 20 years in the field of sustainable agriculture and horticulture in California and Nevada. She serves on BenitoLink's Board of Directors, and the board of San Benito Bounty, a chapter of Slow Food USA. An avid gardener, she has lived in Hollister with her husband and two sons for the past 13 years.