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Water Contamination from Cattle Ranching at Point Reyes National Seashore Causes Outrage


Laura Cunningham, Western Watersheds Project, 775-513-1280,

Lisa Levinson, In Defense of Animals, 215-620-2130,

Jim Coda, former National Park Service attorney, (415) 602-6967 


POINT REYES, Calif. (March 4, 2021) Water sampling from Kehoe Creek and Abbotts Lagoon on January 27 and 28, 2021, showed that bacteria contamination of surface water dramatically exceeded water quality criteria despite the reported implementation by the park service of waste management actions in drainages impacted by dairy and beef ranches. Concerns about the lack of water quality sampling which has not been carried out in Point Reyes National Seashore since 2013, in spite of very serious water pollution issues at the time, have led In Defense of Animals and Western Watersheds Project to contract an expert to conduct a water quality study.  

Water monitors also made a short video about the situation and the water sampling, produced by Jack Gescheidt of Tree Spirit Project and Tony Sehgal of Silver Reactions Media. 

Bacteria results for the South Fork of Kehoe Creek were 30 times the allowable limit for applicable water quality standards for the bacterium Escherichia coli (E. coli) on January 27, and 20 times the limit on January 28.  Kehoe Creek drains to Kehoe Lagoon at Kehoe Beach and, with heavy rains, the lagoon flows to the ocean.  The Lagoon and the ocean are popular recreational spots with direct human contact, which triggers more stringent water quality criteria.  A sample was taken from the Lagoon on January 28 and it exceeded E. coli limits by a factor of 40, and exceeded enterococci limits by a factor of 300 (Enterococcus is another large genus of bacteria).

“I am troubled that measures to try to stop this chronic cattle water pollution in these park units are not working,” noted Laura Cunningham, California Director at Western Watersheds Project. “The mere band-aids currently in place to try to stop the cow manure entering these park waters and coastal habitats for the sake of imperiled species appear to be entirely ineffective.”

Both types of bacterial pollutants pose a hazard to human health and the environment. E. coli is a fecal contaminant that causes food poisoning while enterococci can cause meningitis, urinary tract infections and other diseases in humans. The latter has a high level of antibiotic resistance and is responsible for causing epidemic outbreaks in hospitals over the past two decades. In addition, dairy cattle have for years infected the native Tule elk with Johne’s disease from a Mycobacterium, with no action to end this transfer by the park service.

Abbotts Lagoon is a popular place for water activities.  New water samples were taken from an unnamed creek at the Lagoon that flows across lands leased by I Ranch into the upper chamber of the three-chambered lagoon.  Samples were taken on both January 27 and 28.  On January 27 the unnamed creek exceeded E. coli limits by a factor of 20 and enterococci limits by a factor of 60. On January 28 it exceeded E. coli limits by a factor of 2 and enterococci limits by a factor of 70.  

These test results are consistent with National Park Service test results from 1999 to 2013, yet no signage has been posted to date by the National Park Service warning park visitors to stay out of these hazardous waters. 

This year’s findings come despite warnings by the Center for Biological Diversity which in 2017 ranked Point Reyes as having among the top ten most-polluted waters in the U.S. owing to contamination by fecal coliform bacteria from cattle manure.

Lisa Levinson, Wild Animals Campaigner for In Defense of Animals, said, “We were shocked to discover that the National Park Service hasn’t performed its own water quality tests since 2013, especially since the last one showed high levels of pollutants. That’s why we took the initiative to acquire new water quality data to review before the record of decision for the proposed General Management Plan Amendment is signed. The California Coastal Commission needs this data to accurately assess the environmental risks involved in moving forward with this disastrous plan. Clearly, current commercial ranching activities are harming wild animals and human recreation ability in the park. Increased ranching detailed in the plan should be off the table considering the further environmental damage it will undoubtedly cause this sensitive and priceless park unit containing endangered, rare, and endemic native species.”   

Dairies on the Seashore collect manure and urine in holding ponds and then during the dry season spread it onto park lands used as grazing pastures. During and shortly after rainstorms, some of the manure washes into adjacent streams and creeks and into the coastal lagoons and ocean. This can cause a spike in dangerous bacterial contaminants in publicly accessible waters in the Seashore. These waters are also inhabited by the federally threatened Central Coast steelhead trout, endangered coho salmon, and endangered California red-legged frog.  

“The January water quality monitoring clearly shows that harmful bacteria levels did not end in 2013,” said Cunningham. “They are still occurring.” 

Pacific Ocean species are in urgent need of better conservation measures and clean water, such as the Southern population of orca, blue whale, gray whale, northern elephant seal, Steller sea lion, Southern sea otter, Western snowy plover, brown pelican, steelhead trout, coho salmon, tidewater goby, black abalone, and many others. Declining coastal habitats such as eelgrass beds—marine plants that form rich meadows that are nurseries to many species of fish, invertebrates and other sea life—are also threatened by runoff pollution from farms in Point Reyes.

Samples were also taken at two sites in drainages with light to medium use by cattle raised for beef.  The first site, East Schooner Creek, was slightly above the Clean Water Act standard for E. coli, and four times the standard for enterococci.  The second site, Schooner Creek, was measured just below where East Schooner Creek joins it.  Schooner Creek is tidally affected so an E. coli criterion is not available, but it exceeded the enterococci criterion by 3 to 5 times.  

Macronutrient pollution tests of surface waters for nitrogen and phosphorus were also measured by the monitoring team. When cattle manure and urine is washed into waters it acts as artificial fertilizer, causing excess growth of algae and harmful algal blooms in park-managed waters. This type of water pollution appears to be persisting at concentrations similar to levels before cattle waste management actions were reportedly implemented. 

“Current waste management actions do not seem to have any appreciable effect to mitigate macronutrient pollution by farms at Point Reyes,” said Levinson. “The measured nutrient pollution explains the increased frequency and intensity of harmful algal blooms in Abbotts and Kehoe lagoons, an impact that will only worsen with climate change.” 

These findings come at a contentious time, as plans are currently being considered for how the Seashore and adjacent northern District of Golden Gate National Recreation Area will be managed for decades to come. At the heart of the controversial planning process is a General Management Plan amendment that calls for prolonged cattle grazing and dairying, increased agricultural diversification, and even shooting of native Tule elk owing to claims that they compete for grass with the cows — despite their status as an at-risk, protected species that is vastly outnumbered by cattle.

While tougher implementation of additional cattle waste management actions and “best management practices” could potentially reduce bacteria contamination to waters and the ocean, observers and organizations are very concerned about the lack of effectiveness of park service actions to reduce these significant exceedances enough to meet applicable criteria, reduce harm to rare species and habitats, and prevent human health emergencies.

“Reductions in the localized abundance of cattle waste — and the cattle producing it — will be necessary as an urgent measure to adequately protect water quality at Point Reyes National Seashore,” said Cunningham.  



Water Testing Report Available by Request (see contact information above)

Images – available for free use with credit per filename


In Defense of Animals is an international animal protection organization with over 250,000 supporters and a 37-year history of protecting animals’ rights, welfare, and habitats through education, campaigns, and hands-on rescue facilities in India, South Korea, and rural Mississippi.

 Western Watersheds Project is a nonprofit environmental conservation group that seeks to protect and restore western watersheds and wildlife through education, public policy initiatives, and legal advocacy.

Header photo credit: Frank Schulenburg, CC BY-SA 4.0 License, via Wikimedia Common

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