California Water: GRAP for the Northern Ranchers
Caustic analysis from the Fringe
Water is literally life’s blood. It’s a miraculous substance, a solvent, a transporter, a structural component. Plants need it; we need plants. All life needs water; even cities need water to live.
Your Fringe Editor has been worrying in print about water issues since Moses was in short pants. I grew up with cultural knowledge about the Owens Valley, and had first hand knowledge of how cities buy and steal water.
The issue is, of course complicated. Imagine your are Mr. or Ms. California Legislator, intent on providing sufficient resources to your inhabitants, hopefully making some millionaires along the way. You are blessed with international ports, world class universities, tax generating cities and agricultural land that is the envy of the world. Problem is, the water is needed down here where the wealth and people and votes are, but it’s way up North. Gravity is a big help, since the water tends to want to run down to the Sacramento Delta. There are, though a few problems.
The area in the North where the water falls is inhabited mostly by deer and bunnies and some stinky cows and a few people. A very few. About 2 million of the 38 or so million in the state. Most are buck toothed, cousin humpin’, six toed hillbillies, but a few are “edjacated” with degrees from “Cow Poly”. That handful of people wouldn’t pose much of a problem, but there is a third player, the Environmental Lobby.
As important as water is, there are laws in most states which control it from the state level. California, though, was founded by people dubious of government and firm in the belief that God loves those who take care of their own. As a result, it hasn’t been as easy for California as it has for some states to lay down a uniform water law. Property and water rights advocates have done well against transgression, except for two things. First, when water rights were applied, either by tradition or by judge’s decree, there was a lot more water; it was a wet time for the state. 2. Even at that, more water rights were given out than there was water; a problem which is keenly felt during this drought. California has been tightening the noose on water rights holders, by increasing ground water control, discussed in a recent Fringe editorial, and surface water.
One tool they are using to regulate the amount of water is to regulate the quality of water. Federal law, the Clean Water Act, provides a foundation (and a mandate) for the state to control water quality. The state itself has a “non point source” agency regulating things like meadow use. In doing so, it can also increase the amount of useable water which gets to the cash generating hos of cities and big ag. But, it has to do so while pleasing the environmentalists.
Environmentalists have no friends but themselves, but they are useful for both sides of the issue, for the rural people in the North who watch millions of dollars of water slip across their land without leaving enough income for locals to benefit, and for the state and the water companies, just as it presents problems for both. The environmental purist wants no people at all on the land, except for purist environmentalists who would go there often to be sure no one else was there.
It’s easy to see how environmentalists hamper getting water to the cities and big ag; a law suit against users of the Sacramento Delta threatens to put endangered fish in the Yuba because water companies have to replace water taken farther down stream and since salmon were negatively impacted by the water withdrawal, they have to stock similar salmon somewhere else to make up for it. The twisting, meandering flow of the Feather and the Yuba are straight as strings compared to the wirepile water use has become. So, environmentalists hamper water users because they hold them accountable for damage to the downstream watershed. But, they also help because they can force rural water users to keep the water clean enough to drink. Anything done up stream can impact the amount of water going down stream. Watershed restoration tend to improve the quality of water following gravity to the bank accounts of business and government.
It isn’t easy to see how environmentalists help rural people; it’s far easier to see how they hurt us. Instead of suing cities for being gas belching, plastic dumping, water wasting monsters, environmentalists want to sue us for building a house on our property, or building a deck on the river side of the house. They sue the state and the Forest Service to force them to outlaw nearly everything we do, from dredging for a little gold to powering our sleds over the snow. We should hate them and many of us do, but they also provide a benefit which we can’t under value: they keep the mountains and waters they way they are. It’s possible that if the environmentalists weren’t trying to drive us from the mountains the capitalists would have gentrified the woods and our sons would deal 21 and our daughter would hook. We have few friends in this struggle; we use help when we can get it. We would like more jobs, but we wouldn’t like to see our mountains become “Tahoe”.
So, from pressure from the feds to keep water clean, and environmentalists to keep it in the creeks, and thirsty millions wanting water for pools and waterparks and golf courses, we struggle to live with the water that, a generation ago, was considered a blessing for the meadows and creeks it creates. Back then, being first on the teat, as it were, the water was ours to use. Even then, though, people were willing to burn powder or hire lawyers over water, because if you don’t have water, you got nothing.
Cities have a lot of water, but they poop in it and so on. Instead of being self-reliant on water, they furtively try to reduce use, but cities can’t live without growing, so net use is hard to control.
Cities do reuse some of their water, and “dual plumbing codes” exist which can allow or require new large buildings and other large development to have a “dual plumbing” process, reusing water to flush toilets or water lawns. Below is a graphic from water.ca.gov which explains, ideally, how recycling might work. Reclaimed and “treated” water is being used to “recharge” ground water sources in some areas, meaning the formerly polluted water is injected in to the ground to recharge the aquifers. The state water bond the cities just passed provided for increase recycling, but so far, cities and large Central Valley ag don’t use our water efficiently.
Looking at the graphic above, we see how the world looks to a water recycling planner. Where are our beautiful mountains, our gushing streams? The two little brown hills is us. In the true scheme of things water in California, we don’t really deserve even that slight mention.
Where we do get proper mention and more is in the idea of water purity, and “non-point source” pollution. These are concepts most ranchers in the area already know. There have been, and are continuing, efforts to measure local meadow water for key “impairment factors” and some have already agreed to use fencing to keep cattle from stream sides. Those issues are becoming more important, though, as the state implements GRAP, the “Grazing Regulatory Action Plan”.
“To date, the Water Boards have chosen to regulate livestock grazing through Water Board orders, grazing waivers, Water Quality Control Plan (Basin Plan) prohibitions, developing TMDLs and taking enforcement actions. These approaches have varied in their application and effectiveness, and have resulted in inconsistencies statewide. The Statewide Grazing RegulatoryAction Project (GRAP) is one of several collaborative efforts established by the Water Boards directing staff to work with interested stakeholders on ways to more efficiently and consistently address impaired waters.”
Surface water users in the mountains have already felt the cold hand of the state. In some watersheds, the CADFW has placed gated outlets on some agricultural withdrawals. These are typically smaller than the “eyeballed” gates they replace. They are also “smart” in that they can shut the water off if flow conditions warrant, in their opinion. These technological advancements benefit downstream users, and they probably do benefit stream and river health, but they are another cut in the death of a thousand cuts many rural ag families suffer.
How dirty is our water? The state has surpassed the Federal CWA 303(d) requirements, and while the feds don’t list our local waters on their “impaired waters” website, the Water Board does, indicating that the Yuba has mercury, and the Feather River as it runs from the Sierra Valley to Lake Oroville has Unknown Toxicity. Read about it here: http://www.waterboards.ca.gov/water_issues/programs/tmdl/2010state_ir_reports/01177.shtml#12955
Regardless that the waters aren’t obviously polluted, what the local grazers in the Sierra, Indian, Mohawk and other valleys have to worry most about are 1. Dissolved Oxygen; 2. temperature; 3. Coliforms; 4 Nitrogen.
Cattle, like many other animals, poop in the water when they drink or cross. It’s nature’s way of who knows what, but many mammals do it, and fish, of course, can’t do much else. Calves spread E. Coli, a potential, but not affirmed, problem, since there are millions of E. Coli in your gut right now, producing vitamin K for you, and keeping worse creatures at bay. Even so, the standard considers that a flaw. Likewise, too much nitrogen. Nitrogen is essential for good plant growth, but in water it encourages algae blooms, which can deprive the water of oxygen. Temperature might come from cows broadening the creek by breaking down banks, and munching bushes and small trees which shade the creek, for example.
What’s in the impaired waters of the South? Lindane, hydrocarbons, pharmaceuticals, solvents, heavy metals, and host of really dangerous junk. I’ll have a nice hot cup of calf crap over a cup of chemical sludge anytime, maybe the state should focus all it’s effort on the real pollution in the state, but, never mind comparisons of that nature, we guess.
Indeed, considering grazing livestock to be “non-point source pollution” might be over reaching entirely; some feel the federal law does not empower the state to make such decisions.
There are already “tools” the state has to asses, monitor, and penalize, if necessary, grazers.
Tools from here: http://www.waterboards.ca.gov/water_issues/programs/nps/docs/grap/session1.pdf
The project intends to bring key players on board, and to try to arrive at reasonable solutions, “reasonable” being the value up for debate. The project includes sessions with invited representatives of Environmental, Grazing and industry, Government and Academics. The session includes “Listen” events, which, I’ll bet, means “you better listen”. The hope is, using science, official belief, and good citizenship grazers will accept and follow the law about non-point source “impairment”.
The hope might be validated. In speaking with Holly George, the UC Extension office County Director, Livestock and Natural Resources Farm Advisor, there is good reason to believe that, at least at the current time, there are no waters in the area in jeopardy of being “impaired”. She states that most grazers in the area are good stewards, and already take care of the grassy meadows and clear streams that are a major resource to them. Maybe the news won’t be all gray.
In addition, the GRAP anticipates benefits from grazing, which is a leap forward from “water quality” perspectives of just a few years ago. Are animals of benefit to the watershed? Most wetlands, meadows and stream sides benefit a number of ways from grazing animals. They keep trees from encroaching, fertilize as they go and break up hard soil, increasing the range of meadows. They can also reduce weeds. http://www.californiagrazing.com/
Even so, I doubt the net benefit from this sniffing of our waters is going to be positive for local ranchers and grazers. If nothing else, it might discourage landowners who lease grazing to farmers, since the withering eye of the state might be on their properties, something no landowner should want. I fear that this is just another in a series of blows, some large and inevitable, like drought, some small and blood sucking, like over regulation and added costs, which further weaken the already languishing Sierra rancher. One more nudge for a way of life, and a good and decent people, to disappear from California. Prove me wrong.