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Regulations may force cattle out

by Andy Bourelle

Regulations being enforced on the 11,000-acre Meiss Meadows south of Lake Tahoe may have repercussions on ranching operations throughout the Sierra Nevada.

Why?

Three reasons: Cows graze on the parcel in the summer, fecal coliform standards there are more stringent than they are in other parts of the state and, finally, if the cattle are prohibited from grazing at Meiss Meadows, in a round-about way that could lead to more development along the foothills of the western Sierra.



And if that happens to the California ranch family leasing the meadows, there is a fear that those consequences could be replicated throughout the 570-mile jurisdiction of the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board.

“I think they’re very concerned that what we’re doing in Tahoe may be followed in the rest of the Sierra,” said Bruce Warden of Lahontan. “They’re worried there will be a domino effect.”



Grazing has long been an issue of contention at Tahoe. Some say it has an impact on the water quality of the streams running into the lake, not only because of pathogens from manure but also because of sediment sent downstream from cattle trampling banks and stream beds.

Meiss Meadows has been used for grazing since 1868. The Upper Truckee River, Tahoe’s largest tributary, starts in the meadow at an elevation of more than 8,000 feet. The area is owned by the Forest Service, which leases it in the summer to two California families, who have ranches in the Sierra foothills.

As many as 200 cow/calf pairs – up to 400 head of cattle – are allowed to graze there.

Warden said there are several types of contamination – dissolved oxygen, floating material, settling material, taste and odor thresholds and algal-growth potential – that can show whether the cows’ presence is affecting water quality. The one Lahontan has focused on is fecal coliform – a measurement of the amount of feces in the water – because it is a good indicator other violations may be present.

Lahontan earlier this year issued a notice of violation to the Forest Service for several years’ worth of fecal coliform violations. Since 1991, the years when cows have grazed the area have resulted in violations; in years with no summer grazing, there were no violations.

The Forest Service has been trying to come up with a long-term management plan for the grazing allotment, and the public comment period for a draft environmental assessment closed last month. In addition to Lahontan, the League to Save Lake Tahoe and California Attorney General’s Office were critics of the EA.

This past summer, the Forest Service and the permitees had essentially implemented the plans called for in the EA. However, reports received recently show that violations still occurred from June to September.

Jeff Reiner, fisheries biologist for the Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, said the EA has been withdrawn. However, he said he couldn’t provide further comment on what is going to happen.

“The administrative actions that the Forest Service will be taking are still under decision,” he said Friday. “I can’t have any further comment.”

Warden said “there’s an almost certainty that at a minimum” the Forest Service will have to cut back on the number of cows it allows to graze in the area, likely eliminating them from the so-called Big Meadows portion of the allotment.

However, he’s unsure of whether that will be enough.

“It’s kind of baby steps in the right direction,” Warden said. “It’s better than the status quo, but based on long-term data, I think there are always going to be violations as long as there are cows there.”

Here’s the rub, however. Lahontan’s fecal coliform standards are 10 times more stringent than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s or any of the other eight California regional boards. Because Lahontan regulates the water quality in highly used pristine Sierra lakes, it has had those strict standards for decades at Tahoe and Sierra-wide since the early 1990s.

This is a concern to the permitees and the California Cattleman’s Association because it’s possible no grazing operation could meet those standards.

“If it’s an unattainable standard that’s starting to be enforced, then we’ve got a problem,” said Pat Blacklock, director of administration and policy affairs for the California Cattleman’s Association.

In the case of the Meiss permitees, they transport their cattle to the Sierra every summer when forage material becomes scarce in the foothills. It’s a more financially prudent way to keep their business afloat when their ranch already is surrounded by development. Taking away the grazing opportunities at Meiss could force them to lose their businesses. Many California ranches do the same: transporting their cattle to the Sierra during the summer.

Selling their ranches to developers may be their only option.

Not only does the Cattleman’s Association not want that to happen to the Meiss permitees, it doesn’t want that to be the case elsewhere in the Sierra.

“We’re all working together – working with Lahontan, working with the Forest Service,” Blacklock said. “We’re going to try to find a solution that works.”

Warden said “drastic changes” are needed.

“We’re talking to the Forest Service. They’re going to have to make some really drastic changes in the way they do things, or they’re going to have to take the cows away.”

If violations continue, the next step for Lahontan would be to issue a cease-and-desist order, which would likely require the Forest Service to take the cattle away. After that, litigation from the California Attorney General’s Office could be possible.

“They are required to live up to state standards,” Warden said.

It isn’t Lahontan’s intention, Warden said, to create a “domino effect” elsewhere in the Sierra. However, the agency has to enforce its rules.

“We’re not going to be actively trying to check them out, but if we have a complaint from an individual, we have to respond. And if there are violations, we may have to force them to take the cows away,” Warden said. “I’m not saying dominoes are going to fall all over the Sierra, but if they do fall, so be it.

“Tahoe waters and eastern Sierra waters are pristine,” he added. “We want to preserve that.”

Dave Roberts, assistant executive director of the League to Save Lake Tahoe, said the “labor-intensive, cost-intensive procedure” under way to try to keep grazing in the meadows isn’t worth the effort. And even if the Forest Service finds a way to meet the fecal coliform standards, that doesn’t address other issues, such as damaging populations of Lahontan cutthroat trout in the river.

“When we talk about how much money we’re spending on fixing the Upper Truckee River, well, it doesn’t cost anything to take the cows away. And that would be a significant benefit to the ecosystem,” he said. “I would like to see all the cows out of there, period – or see the Forest Service provide environmental documentation that adequately addresses the situation and justifies grazing.”


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