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Watershed Survives

TAGS: Pasture
The 40,000-acre Alameda Creek Watershed lies east of San Francisco. About 32,000 acres of it are grazed, though relatively few beef producers depend on it for their livelihood.Yet this watershed is at the center of a historic public lands use agreement. Today, ranches in the Alameda Creek Watershed are the focus of HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point)-oriented land management and cooperation

The 40,000-acre Alameda Creek Watershed lies east of San Francisco. About 32,000 acres of it are grazed, though relatively few beef producers depend on it for their livelihood.

Yet this watershed is at the center of a historic public lands use agreement. Today, ranches in the Alameda Creek Watershed are the focus of HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point)-oriented land management and cooperation among lessees, water department customers and agencies overseeing the San Francisco area water supply.

The Cryptosporidium Scare Water from the San Antonio and Calaveras reservoirs in this watershed is mixed with water from other sources and delivered to 2.3 million residents expecting some of the cleanest municipal water in the country. Like any municipality or water district, problems can occur. The concern that affects the water supply of San Francisco is Cryptosporidium parvum.

C. parvum is a tiny protozoal parasite that escapes many water filtering and treatment programs. It can cause gastrointestinal illness in humans and other mammals. It's the same parasite that caused more than 70 deaths from the Milwaukee, WI, water supply in 1993.

For years, C. parvum has been continually monitored by the San Francisco Water Department. In February 1997, however, it became a hot issue.

"It wasn't that Crypto was all of a sudden discovered in the water supply," says Sheila Barry, watershed management specialist with the Alameda County Resource Conservation District (ACRCD). "There had been a concern for some time about Crypto in drinking water. Several activists had been pushing San Francisco officials to examine ways to eliminate risks and update water plants."

C. parvum can be transmitted into a water system via feces from young calves dropping onto grazing areas and in the reservoir. Deer, elk and feral pigs carry it, too. Once in a water system in sufficient numbers, C. parvum oocysts can create life-threatening, even fatal, cases of infection when water is consumed by persons with suppressed immune systems. This includes the very young, the elderly, cancer victims and those with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

A 30-Day Deadline Sparked by news accounts of C. parvum contamination in Milwaukee, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) considered canceling grazing leases in the Alameda Watershed, effectively removing all cattle quickly. The intent was to significantly lower the risk of C. parvum being transmitted via municipal water.

Local ranchers sprung to action. Activist groups called for a review of grazing practices. The cancellation notice quickly created new activists in the livestock community.

"We had only 30 days to develop an action plan," Barry says. "We needed massive input from ranchers and resource professionals to address SFPUC commissioners and Mayor Willie Brown."

Resource people included officials from the state's fish and game department, parks department, University of California specialists and a veterinarian with a specialty in environmental health. All wrote letters supporting grazing.

"At the time, the ones speaking against cattle grazing were representatives from Clean Water Action, ACT UP Golden Gate and the Alice B. Toklas Lesbian and Gay Democratic Club," Barry says. "Basically, they were saying, 'we want clean water and if that means taking the cattle off the land, that's what you have to do.' We wanted to show them there are ways for cattle to graze and still have clean water."

George Gough, director of government affairs for the California Cattlemen's Association (CCA), knew the long-term effect to the state's beef industry was serious if watershed grazing were outlawed. He hired a lobbyist to help CCA.

Tackling The Problem Resources and experts in place, the beef industry team began a series of strategy meetings and discussions with the SFPUC. So did opponents.

Cattlemen presented substantial, factual testimony supporting grazing. Even if removing cattle would prevent Crypto, they argued, other mammalian species carry it. Without controlling all wild animals, it wasn't possible to get the Crypto count to zero, they argued. Cattle grazing also controls underbrush, an important factor in fire control.

"For these and other reasons, it was apparent that an extreme solution could create other problems," says E. Dennis Normandy, SFPUC commissioner. He put the issue on a fast track, scheduled hearings and encouraged both sides to arrive at a workable solution.

The Process Works Six months' of discussions, hearings and expert testimony between producers, activists and SFPUC commissioners brought home the point that creating zero risk of C. parvum wasn't possible. It was time to develop a plan to manage that risk.

Education played a big role. Ranchers organized a tour of the watershed, inviting SFPUC personnel and activists to visit and actually see how watersheds work and how the ecosystem is intertwined. It changed minds as well as perceptions.

"I went into this with the idea of getting rid of cattle," says Tony Leone, a representative of the Alice B. Toklas Lesbian and Gay Democratic Club. Living with AIDS, Leone is severely at risk of death with a Crypto infection.

At first, Leone was in favor of abruptly removing cattle off the watershed, but the hearings and discussion swayed his thinking.

"It seemed reasonable that you could control the domestic animals in the watershed, set up non-grazing zones and do some of the other management techniques. By doing these things, the risk of Crypto could be lowered," he says.

Leone says he learned that cattle help keep the population of elk in check and the risk that feral pigs create. He also learned that the ranchers were genuinely concerned - not just about their livelihoods.

The Plan Was Successful With a greater understanding by all parties, a science-based plan was developed that addressed everyone's needs. A HACCP plan was developed that called for management adjustments by ranchers and increased diligence of the water department and SFPUC.

The Alameda Creek Watershed Grazing Resources Management Plan was authored with the help of ranchers, ACRCD, SFPUC, City of San Francisco legal staff and a consulting firm. It addresses pathogens such as C. parvum, watershed fire protection, management practices and leasing strategies. Plan components include:

* Non-calf buffers to be maintained around reservoirs and streams with riparian habitat.

* Calving limited to August through October. Calving must be 80% complete by September 30, done by October 31.

* Tap springs, creating water supplies away from reservoirs.

* Locate supplemental feeding areas away from stream channels, flood plains or sensitive areas.

* Lessees maintain a herd health program for prevention and care of general parasitic disease.

* Stocking rates for each parcel achieve a target residual dry matter (RDM) of 1,000 lbs./acre.

* Establish an on-going program to reduce feral pig population.

In addition, the grazing management strategy includes required structural protection measures specifically designed to reduce the risk of viable pathogen discharges into watershed streams and reservoirs. Key components include:

* Fenced reservoir buffers restricting all cattle access.

* Stream zone buffers restricting all cattle access.

* Fenced riparian pastures restricting access by calves.

* Fenced stock water ponds on certain water courses to prevent direct cattle access.

* Watershed protection areas open to general grazing by cows and calves. These areas are developed with water collection and distribution improvements to disperse cattle away form riparian pastures.

* Development of off-stream cattle and wildlife water improvements to disperse deer, elk and feral pigs away from key water and riparian areas.

Working Together Robert Nielsen is a member of the family-owned TN Cattle Co., Inc. He runs a stocker operation with a few mother cows in the watershed. He likes the plan.

"A lot of management things came out of this. Some were in the making already," Nielsen says. "But, the biggest thing is that we have designated fields for calving. There's been a lot of work on spring development to keep cows out of riparian areas. These are tools we've used for a long time, but there are a few more restrictions," he says.

Most of the tools that have come from the management plan are things ranchers can live with, not just on public land, but private as well, Nielsen adds.

New lessees are also required to adhere to specific selection criteria.

"The criteria required are similar to what one might meet if applying for a job," says Tim Koopman, watershed keeper and a part of a fourth-generation family cattle operation that borders the watershed."

It includes a summary of requirements and addresses resource operation and management expertise. It also includes financial statements and letters of references from other landlords and financial institutions. All but two of the ranchers currently leasing were selected in October of this year to lease again for five years.

"I'd say the leasing process was the best under all circumstances," Nielsen says. "San Francisco is looking for tenants who will be good land stewards. They developed a system that was as fair as possible."

When developing the leasing criteria, competitive bidding was removed from the process and replaced by a flat fee on animal units per acre. This created a more equitable process, even though it reduced San Francisco's income by about $200,000 per year.

The Signing Sets A Precedent Last August an accord was signed, setting a precedent for cooperation among officials, beef producers and city residents.

"Water quality is an issue that will be with us for a long time," says CCA's Gough. "In California, 85 percent of our water passes through rangeland. There are days when water quality seems to be the only issue."

Normandy says staying focused on key issues keeps discussion processes moving and brings diverse groups together.

"You can't lose focus," he says. "We're supposed to protect our water supply. But, there were no 100-percent solutions. There are other mammals besides cattle that inhabit this watershed and pose a Crypto risk. We stayed the course and came to agreement."

It's this focus that's appreciated by cattlemen and others. Leone, the activist, says the final plan is a good compromise.

"Crypto is still a risk, but we have to determine what risk is acceptable," Leone says. "At this point, we don't know how much Crypto is required to cause the disease in humans. It seems a much greater priority to protect the watershed and continue working on the Crypto issue than to create more restrictive policies."

The number of Crypto cases is down in San Francisco. Whether it's the result of the new management plan isn't known, but it is a triumph for California's beef industry and San Fransiscans.