Proposed water quality rules may limit ag activities

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A new effort to regulate grazing and its potential impacts on water quality has California ranchers concerned new rules could limit their food production activities and yield little environmental benefits.

State water regulators launched a series of public listening sessions around the state during January to solicit public comments before developing a new “Grazing Regulatory Action Project.” The last session will take place Jan. 28 from 9 a.m. to noon in Bishop. Advance reservation is required.

The State Water Resources Control Board and the nine regional water quality control boards said in public documents they’re working together on the new project to explore ways to improve environmental benefits from grazing, while protecting surface and groundwater.

The Water Board said it wants to reduce stream sediment loading and introduction of bacteria and nutrients to water bodies and wetlands, as well as prevent physical alteration of the land that can harm habitat and wildlife.

“Without our members engaging in this new regulatory effort, there’s a risk of regulatory overreach by those who don’t understand cattle and grazing practices,” said Danny Merkley, California Farm Bureau Federation water resources director. “This discussion has been introduced, but bypasses a crucial question: Is grazing creating any water quality problems?

“Without an answer to that question, it’s hard to decide what regulatory response, if any, is appropriate,” he said. “Our members need to get involved in this discussion to help the water boards understand range science, current grazing practices and help them determine if an additional regulatory program is warranted.”

At a listening session on the proposed GRAP, grazing and livestock expert Kay Mercer urged Central Coast Regional Water Quality Board representatives to avoid premature decision-making, noting that much analysis of assumptions is needed.

For example, she said water-quality impairment listings can be out of date or inadequate or lack properly calibrated baselines for California conditions. This gap in accurate scientific data could lead to misguided or unnecessary regulations.

In her work with the Central Coast Cattlemen’s Leadership Group, Mercer said well-managed livestock grazing provides important benefits to the people of California. Any discussion of regulatory options must include consideration of these benefits and provide for continuation of sustainable food production.

The water board said in its introduction of the proposed regulatory project that any discussion of regulatory options must include consideration of the compliance costs to the grazing community.

It said the public listening sessions “aim to engage stakeholders to explore potential solutions that provide consistent and effective methods of minimizing the harm grazing can do to waterways, while maintaining a viable livestock industry.”

Public and private grazing lands comprise about 40 million acres of the state’s total 100 million acres.

The water boards said they have a mandate to address all discharges of “waste” that could affect the quality of the waters of the state. This includes addressing discharges and potential discharges of waste associated with livestock grazing.

CFBF Natural Resources Director Noelle Cremers said water-quality protections related to livestock and grazing have been around for decades. She pointed out that since 1995 significant investments have been made in water-quality improvements with the adoption of the rangeland water-quality management plan.

“At the public session in San Luis Obispo last week, more than 200 ranchers attended and expressed serious concerns about this proposed regulatory project,” Cremers said. “They let water board staff know they intend to follow this process and actively work to educate regulators about the extensive work to protect water quality that has already been accomplished.”

For example, ranchers have been working with University of California Cooperative Extension and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service to create ranch water-quality plans and install various measures and infrastructure to protect water quality.

“We need to ensure natural resources are protected and well managed, but ranchers also need to make sure an onerous regulatory program is not unnecessarily imposed on grazing and livestock producers throughout the state.”

Because of the implications of this issue, CFBF is working with leaders of the California Cattlemen’s Association and the California Wool Growers Association to coordinate response to the GRAP proposal.

An informal committee of livestock producers has been formed to help track this regulatory proposal and provide input and guidance to members and agency staff.

Alameda County rancher Tim Koopmann has been asked to head the committee.

More information on the GRAP proposal is online