Point Reyes National Seashore is one of the gems of the National Park System in Northern California. Sweeping meadows meet rich beaches just north of San Francisco, creating a utopia for the marine mammals and roaming wildlife that call the park its home.
The National Park Service recently unveiled its plan to extend the leases of ranchers in Point Reyes, meaning the dairy farms will sit in their location for at least the next 5 to 20 years. So will the thousands of cows expelling 130 million pounds of poop and urine annually.
A 2013 study by U.S. Department of Interior scientists determined that California’s highest reported E. coli levels occurred in the wetlands and creeks coming from Point Reyes cattle ranches near Kehoe Beach, Drake’s Bay, Abbotts Lagoon and Tomales Bay. The high levels mean toxic water awaits for the swimmers and ocean wildlife that frequent the area.
“A national park like Point Reyes shouldn’t be home to some of the crappiest waterways in America,” said Jeff Miller with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Park Service is supposed to manage these public lands for protection of natural resources, but commercial dairies and cattle ranches continue to cause significant bacterial pollution of the park’s waterways.”
In a January 2021, a test of the water in Abbotts Lagoon by environmentalists revealed the number of E. coli cells found in water samples was twenty times the safe amount. E. coli bacteria can have harmful side effects for both the marine wildlife and swimmers at Point Reyes, with symptoms including diarrhea, stomach pains and a fever.
To make the situation worse, there are no signs warning of the bacterial threat at Point Reyes. No warning to swimmers. No information on the website. Nothing. It’s almost as if the Park Service doesn’t want the public to understand the problem.
Following the January testing, Park Superintendent Craig Kenkel indicated that the E. coli levels are no surprise. He said they will continue to address the situation as they always have, with livestock exclusion fencing, erosion control, livestock water supply, and stock pond restoration. For many, that’s not enough.
The unique situation of the dairy farms sitting within the National Seashore have caused more than poop problems. In 2020, National Park officials decided to begin killing the Tule Elk that live in Point Reyes to limit grass feeding competition with the cows. The plan has been met with outrage from conservation groups, but cries for the expulsion of the dairy farms in the area have fallen on deaf ears.
At the center of Point Reyes’ issues sits the dairy farmers, who pay rent to raise cattle on the land and have been there since the 1860’s. In fact, when President John F. Kennedy signed the bill that acquired the land as a national park, part of the deal was allowing the dairy farmers to stay in the area. The government bought the land from the farmers and they have been paying rent ever since, a deal that was critical for the designation of the park.
Environmentalists continue to fight what they deem injustices in Point Reyes. They are currently lobbying the California Coastal Commission to address the issue in April when it decides whether to accept the water safety elements in Point Reyes, addressing the Park Service’s newly minted plan to keep the dairy farmers in the area.
It seems like the battle of Point Reyes will continue through the coming years, with no end in sight.