Meiss Meadows won’t have cows this summer |

Meiss Meadows won’t have cows this summer

Cows will be absent this summer from a stream-filled grazing area which has been the focus of significant Sierra-wide attention.

The cattle could be brought back, decreased or banned from the Lake Tahoe Basin’s Meiss Meadows the following summer depending on how water quality tests turn out this season.

Officials want to spend this summer taking samples at the cow-free meadow, located south of Tahoe, to determine a baseline condition for fecal coliform.

During the past 10 years, summers when cattle grazing and water sampling both occurred at the 11,000-acre area, there were violations of fecal coliform standards. However, there’s no in-depth data about whether there would be violations during the summers when cows are not there.

Before banning cows from the area altogether, or at least reducing their numbers substantially, the Forest Service wants to make sure fecal coliform standards aren’t being exceeded anyway.

“We’re going to do water quality and fecal coliform monitoring in cooperation with the University of California and the permitees,” said Jeff Reiner of the Forest Service. “We’d like to see what the fecal coliform levels are without livestock.”

Fecal coliform is a measurement of the amount of feces in water, and people who come in contact with the waste can become seriously ill.

The Meiss area is a well-used hiking spot at Tahoe, second only to Desolation Wilderness in popularity. The meadows have been used for grazing since 1868. The Forest Service, which manages the land, allows as many as 800 head of cattle in the grazing allotment, which surrounds the headwaters of the Upper Truckee River, Tahoe’s largest tributary.

However, the issue of allowing the cows there has become contentious in recent years, as the stream-filled area repeatedly failed fecal coliform tests.

And there are fears that what happens at Meiss Meadows could have repercussions throughout the Sierra Nevada.

The Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, which regulates water pollution on the California side of the basin, has a fecal coliform standard that is 10 times more stringent than those of the federal Environmental Protection Agency or other California water boards.

The permit holders who graze cattle there, as well as the California Cattleman’s Association, are worried that the stringent standard is unattainable.

If cattle are prohibited from the meadow, the families who use the area for summer grazing may have to sell their ranches in the Sierra foothills, which could lead to more development along the West Slope of the mountain range.

This is one of the first times Lahontan has aggressively enforced the standard. And if Meiss Meadows permitees lose their ranches, there is a fear that those consequences could be replicated throughout Lahontan’s 33,000-square-mile jurisdiction, which runs along the Nevada border from the Mojave Desert to Oregon.

Michelle Macfarlane, director of public relations for the California Cattleman’s Association, said her organization supports the cow-free year of tests.

“What we’re hoping is we will get some baseline data to show if the standard is attainable,” she said. “And we’ll use that data to help manage the cattle on the allotment.

“This will set precedent throughout the entire Lahontan region,” she added.

The Forest Service’s Reiner said beavers, deer, other wildlife as well as hikers and their dogs could increase fecal coliform levels in the area. However, he anticipates the cow-free season will result in fecal coliform levels that meet Lahontan’s standards.

Bruce Warden, an environmental specialist for Lahontan, said he agrees that testing should occur this year but also felt fecal coliform levels would be OK, meaning the cows likely will eventually need to be removed or at least decreased.

“You would logically think wildlife is a little more active that time of year, but I think the quantitative jump (in fecal coliform levels) when the cattle are there can only be caused by the grazing,” Warden said.

Last summer, while cows were present, samples were taken at Meiss Meadows that were as high as 40 times the Lahontan standard, meaning they exceeded EPA’s rules by about four times.

Livestock grazing has long been a contentious issue at Tahoe, where it is believed cattle impact the water quality of the streams running into the lake because of pathogens from manure and because of sediment sent downstream from cattle trampling banks and stream beds.

The bistate Tahoe Regional Planning Agency has adopted rules that will be phased in over upcoming years, requiring ranch owners to upgrade their properties in ways to prevent cattle from damaging streams, wetlands and the lake itself.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around the Lake Tahoe Basin and beyond make the Tahoe Tribune's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.

Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User