Point Reyes ranch inspections find more raw sewage leaks

Inspections at private cattle and dairy ranches in the Point Reyes National Seashore have found more ranches were discharging raw sewage either through leaks or missing septic systems.

Marin County Environmental Health Services and the National Park Service conducted septic system inspections from February through August at all 17 ranches in the seashore and the neighboring Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Seven of the ranches — the B, E, G, J, L, Niman and Zanardi ranches — were found to have a range of violations, including improperly discharging raw sewage into an open cow pasture and manure pond; leaks of varying degrees including one that resulted in sewage pooling under a worker home; missing facilities and faulty pumping systems.

RELATED: Point Reyes water quality tests find high bacteria levels

“The ranches with identified problems are not all alike with the extent of the problem,” said county environmental health official Gwendolyn Baert. She said not all the ranches experiencing issues were “discharging onto the ground or into their dairy waste ponds.”

Baert said it is unclear how much sewage had leaked or been discharged at these ranches or how long the leaks may have been occurring. The county is working with the ranch operators and park service officials to permit needed repairs.

Greg Pirie, deputy director of the environmental health agency, said no fines or penalties are being assessed by the county and he deferred enforcement questions to the National Park Service.

“Marin County will be inspecting the installation of the septic repairs as they are installed,” Pirie said. “Marin County EHS will work with NPS if they wish to institute an ongoing sanitary survey into the future. There is no set schedule for those future inspections.”

The county was first alerted to the septic issues through citizen complaints concerning the B and L ranches at the start of the year. After the inspections occurred, the park service and county worked to inspect the remaining 15 ranches on the seashore to determine that five more needed “extensive repair or replacement of their septic systems,” Pirie wrote.

Ranch owners are required as part of their lease agreements to maintain their septic systems. The park service is requiring the seven operators to address the problems either by replacing or repairing the septic system, stop the use of any residential or working structure with a failed septic system or to cap and pump septic system tanks temporarily while determining longer-term fixes, according to park official Melanie Gunn.

The inspection results come as the California Coastal Commission prepares to review the park service’s revised strategies on Thursday to improve water quality in the seashore and reduce pollution from ranches. The commission had voted unanimously earlier this year to reject the park’s initial submission, stating it was too vague or lacked clear benchmarks and enforcement actions. The commission staff is recommending approval of the park’s revised strategies.

In its strategy, the park service wrote that it is expected that ranch operators will have 30 days to correct most violations.

“Some larger items identified require multiple reviews and permits leading to implementation,” the park service strategy states. “NPS anticipates that it will continue working with ranchers to ensure all identified issues are addressed and remediated through the remainder of 2022.”

Gunn pointed to the strategy’s summary of enforcement options if a ranch operator continues to fail to address violations. These include restrictions on use, grazing or cattle numbers; issuing fines of $100 per day; or termination of the lease.

Detailed descriptions of violations found at five of the seven ranches were not immediately available on Tuesday. County officials deferred more details to the park service’s notices of violations issued to ranch operators. The Independent Journal has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the documents.

In the February inspection at the B Ranch, located on the Point Reyes peninsula, county staff found raw sewage from four worker homes was being discharged through two pipes onto a manure pond and cow pasture. Pirie said there was “no evidence of a septic tank or leach field” found for these structures at the time. A broken pipe beneath one of these homes had also resulted in raw sewage pooling up beneath a worker’s home.

B Ranch operator Jarrod Mendoza said since the inspections occurred, he has installed three new tanks and three new leach fields and is working to repair an outdated leach field.

“Everything else for the more major projects, those are all completed,” Mendoza said.

As to why the ranch did not have septic tanks and leach fields prior to the inspections, Mendoza said, “I will have to get back to you on that, I cannot answer that at this time.”

Inspections at the L dairy ranch to the northeast found sewage from a septic tank was being routed to a manure pond. There was no evidence of a leach field, according to the county.

L Ranch operator Jolynn McClelland provided an emailed statement on Thursday.

“We continue to work with the county and Park on what needs to be done,” McClelland wrote.

Bill Niman, operator of the Niman Ranch at the southern end of the park, said the inspection found a minor blockage in his leach field that resulted in a small amount of sewage pooling at the surface. He said the leach field is about 1,100 feet from his house and is in a fenced-off area that he doesn’t frequent.

“It’s been there since 1978,” Niman said. “It needed a little dusting and cleaning.”

Attempts to contact the other ranch owners for comment on Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Opponents of continued ranching in the national seashore say the inspections are the latest environmental impacts to be found in a series of incidents, including illegal bulldozing and new water quality tests finding high concentrations of fecal bacteria in park waterways.

“These environmental and regulatory issues just keep mounting at Point Reyes,” said Chance Cutrano, programs director at the Resource Renewal Institute, which opposes continued ranching. “All of them are reinforcing the overwhelming public sentiment that the current conditions out there and business as usual practices are unsustainable.”

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