Sonoma County Farm Bureau

Become a Member

Maintaining Livestock Grazing Amid New Water Quality Regulations

The San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board (Regional Board) has adopted new regulations for grazing lands greater than 100 acres within the Napa River and Sonoma Creek watersheds. The conditional waiver for grazing operations (grazing waiver) is part of a larger program to reduce the amount of sediments, pathogens and nutrients in Sonoma Creek and Napa River that impair water quality and limit beneficial uses. Livestock grazing was identified as one of many sources of these contaminants, which obligates the Regional Board to implement a water quality compliance program for grazing activities.

In response, several organizations (University of California Cooperative Extension, USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, Resource Conservation Districts and Farm Bureau) have committed to supporting and assisting livestock operators and landowners comply with the grazing waiver. Three classroom workshops and three field days on local ranches were held during 2012 for landowners to learn about ranch water quality planning, management practices to minimize water quality impairments, and compliance monitoring and reporting. Previously completed RCD and NRCS conservation practices were visited to understand new approaches and technologies for improving water quality and sustaining viable working ranches. For example, grade stabilization structures (photo left), water troughs, fencing, ranch roads, revegetation and prescribed grazing were discussed in order for landowners to prioritize the future project sites on their ranch.

In order to comply with the grazing waiver, livestock operators or landowners of grazing lands are required to submit a Notice of Intent (NOI) form, prepare and implement a Ranch Water Quality Plan (RWQP), and submit annual certification forms. The NOI is a form that informs the Regional Board that a grazing operation intends to comply with the waiver program. Current grazing operations were to submit the NOI to the Regional Board by November 15, 2011. However, if the form was not submitted, the Regional Board will continue to accept NOI submissions.

The Ranch Water Quality Plan (RWQP) is a collection of information that describes the ranch, provides an inventory of resources, describes grazing management practices, identifies ranch water quality concerns, prioritizes future water quality projects, and serves as a file to organize monitoring and reporting records. Ranch maps are required and NRCS/RCD has provided them to landowners that requested them. The RWQP is not submitted to the Regional Board, but must be completed by November 15, 2012 and is available for review by Regional Board staff upon request. A template has been approved by the Regional Board to guide ranch managers through the process and complete the paperwork in a flexible approach that allows the plan to meet the individual needs of each ranch. UC Cooperative Extension staff is available to visit individual ranches and will provide a binder with the RWQP template that can be completed as a hand-written or electronic option.

Compliance monitoring and reporting must be completed and recorded at various times throughout the year. Monitoring grazing activities and impacts is nothing unusual for grazing operators, but recording such observations in a written form, or as pictures, may be a new practice. The Annual Certification summarizes monitoring observations and actions taken to reduce water quality impairments. It must be submitted on November 15, 2012 and every year thereafter using the template provided in the RWQP binder.

Livestock grazing has sustained societies for millennia and has a critical role in the proper functioning of many ecosystems. Despite these important contributions, livestock grazing operations continually face many threats such as unpredictable livestock markets, shrinking forage resources, negative perceptions of grazing impacts and government regulations. The new conditional waiver for grazing lands adopted by the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board is perceived by many as the latest threat from government that will burden livestock operators with additional workload and possibly scare landowners into not renewing grazing leases.

While the regulations may be intimidating, irritating and raise liability concerns, there are many reasons to maintain grazing, including a growing body of scientific research identifying the ecological benefits of appropriate grazing practices and the negative ecological effects of removing grazing.  A short review of these ecological benefits can be found at http://cesolano.ucdavis.edu/files/139163.pdf.

The bottom line is that the grazing waiver does not change the liability to landowners and livestock producers in any way that is different than before. The Regional Board has the same authorities to regulate water quality, but the grazing waiver is a relatively new mechanism to ensure water quality improvement practices are being implemented. Choosing not to graze rangelands may prove a greater liability due to increased risk and severity of wild fires, weed invasion, reduced wildlife habitat and the lack of regular land management activities.

The grazing waiver will require some attention and time, especially during the first year when the Ranch Water Quality Plan must be created.  Livestock producers and landowners may find some comfort knowing that the adopted grazing waiver program was designed to minimize the burden of reporting while providing the necessary information to the Regional Board and is identical to one implemented in 2008 for the Tomales Bay watershed .

If you are interested in receiving assistance in developing a RWQP, please contact:

Michael Lennox, Ranch Planning & Conservation Monitoring Coordinator
Stephanie Larson, Livestock & Natural Resources Advisor
UC Cooperative Extension Santa Rosa
(707) 565-2621, mlennox@ucdavis.edu 

Morgan Doran, Livestock & Natural Resources Advisor
UC Cooperative Extension Napa
(707) 784-1326, mpdoran@ucanr.edu

For presentations and other information from the RWQP 2012 workshops, go to http://ucanr.org/napa_sonoma_grazing_waiver

If you would like additional information about the Regional Board’s grazing waiver, got to www.waterboards.ca.gov/sanfranciscobay/water_issues/programs/TMDLs/grazing/index.shtml

Back to Top