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Agencies at odds over cow droppings, Upper Truckee River

Whether grazing is compatible with preserving water quality has long been a contentious issue at Lake Tahoe, and the latest focus of that debate centers around 12,000 acres of land at the headwaters of the Upper Truckee River.

The U.S. Forest Service owns the land at the so-called Meiss Meadows and permits a California ranch business to graze cattle there in the summer. The Forest Service has completed an Environmental Assessment outlining future plans for that area and is accepting comments on the document until Sept. 27. The assessment will allow continued grazing at the site; however, changes will have to be made to help protect the stream environment zones on the land.

The League to Save Lake Tahoe and the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board have concerns that the plan won’t adequately protect the Upper Truckee River.



The permit holders who graze the cattle there could not be reached, but the California Cattleman’s Association has long been involved in the issue there. Pat Blacklock, director of administration and policy affairs for the association, said his group plans to work with the permit holders to see if this is a viable plan for them. If not, he said, the Cattleman’s Association would continue to work with the Forest Service until an acceptable plan for both parties could be reached.

Meiss Meadows has been used for grazing since 1868.




The Upper Truckee River, Tahoe’s largest watershed, starts in the meadow at an elevation of more than 8,000 feet. Built in 1878, a working-ranch cabin there is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. And the first 7 miles of the 14-mile river, starting in the meadow, is being recommended for Wild status as part of the National Wild and Scenic River System. The listing is not supposed to affect grazing.

The Environmental Assessment is a proposal to allow cows to forage in a manner compatible with water quality, wildlife and recreation values. Forest Service officials believe the plan does that.

“I wouldn’t have written the EA if it didn’t,” said Jeff Reiner, fisheries biologist for the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. “I’m very comfortable with the strategy outlined in this EA.”

Lahontan officials aren’t so sure.

Through an agreement with Lahontan, the Forest Service is the water quality management agency for its Tahoe Basin land. While the federal agency has water authority at Meiss Meadows, Lahontan can issue a notice of violation, essentially saying the Forest Service needs to do its job there better.

That happened late last month for violations of fecal coliform standards at two Tahoe grazing areas, including Meiss Meadows.

Lauri Kemper, chief of Lahontan’s Tahoe unit, said there were violations of standards in 1991, 1992, 1996 and 1997 – all years where cows grazed the meadow. In 1994 and 1995, there were no cows in the meadows and no violations. In 1992 and 1998, no sampling occurred.

Data for 1999 isn’t yet available, Kemper said. Those results may serve to alleviate or strengthen the agency’s concerns. The practices over the summer were supposed to be very similar to what is proposed in the environmental assessment, Kemper said.

“We’re not convinced the proposed action will maintain water quality standards,” she said.

The League is strongly against grazing at Meiss Meadows.

“Cattle grazing and water quality objectives are simply incompatible,” said Dave Roberts, assistant executive director of the League.

Roberts said the area is popular for hiking, and the fecal coliform levels are a risk to the area’s visitors. Additionally, cows defecating and walking in the stream zone hurts the spawning opportunities of Lahontan cutthroat trout and sends algal-promoting nutrients down the river into Tahoe.

“(Agencies) are spending millions and millions of dollars to restore the Upper Truckee River, and they’re allowing cows to (defecate) in it,” Roberts said.

Roberts said he also has a concern that the Forest Service doesn’t have the resources to implement the plans. And the responsibility will be the Forest Service’s while it is the permitees who graze cattle in the area.

The proposal will allow grazing from July 15 to Oct. 15. The plan will limit the amount of stream bed disturbance there can be and vegetation that can be eaten. Monitoring is called for, and when certain percentages are reached each year, the permitee will have to take the cattle away.

The Governing Board of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency in January approved an ordinance that requires ranch owners in the basin to come up with grazing management plans by 2002. The plans are to outline how the property owners plan to implement changes on their land and minimize the impact of the cattle on water quality.

Reiner said that document will be created during the current Meiss Meadows planning process. The final Meiss plan should be completed by the end of the year.

optional breakout

Copies of the Environmental Assessment Meiss Grazing Allotment are available in local libraries and at the U.S. Forest Service’s office at 870 Emerald Bay Road. Comments from the public should be submitted in writing with the following information: name, address, telephone number and title of document for which the comments are being submitted. Send to:

U.S. Forest Service

Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit

870 Emerald Bay Road, Suite 1

South Lake Tahoe, Calif. 96150

Fecal coliform tests for Meiss Meadows

1991 – grazing – violation

1992 – no tests

1993 – grazing – violation

1994 – no grazing – no violation

1995 – no grazing – no violation

1996 – grazing – violation

1997 – grazing – violation

1998 – no tests


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