State Board Drops Planned Grazing Rule

Taylor HillmanEnvironment, Water

turf grass
After hearing from ranchers across the state about their different grazing practices and the numerous environmental benefits of grazing, the State Water Resources Control Board has decided to scrap efforts to regulate grazing on a statewide basis to address potential water-quality impacts.

Instead, the board has proposed using a regional approach by having the state’s nine regional water quality control boards pursue their own regulatory or nonregulatory strategies. The state board will consider adopting a resolution on this proposal on Sept. 16.

The draft resolution comes after the state water board held public listening sessions around the state earlier this year to solicit feedback on its Grazing Regulatory Action Project, or GRAP, which the board proposed late last year.

The project raised serious concerns among ranchers, who feared the new rules could limit their food-production activities while yielding little environmental benefits. Many ranchers attended the listening sessions to express their concerns about the proposed project.

“Principal among the feedback was that regional differences in rangeland style, grazing practices and water quality factors supported a regional approach to grazing rather than a statewide approach,” the state water board said in its draft resolution.

Shasta County rancher Henry Giacomini said the collective comments of California ranchers must have made clear to the state water board that “a one-size-fits-all, statewide approach wasn’t going to be reasonable.”

He praised the resolution for recognizing the potential benefits of grazing and its economic contributions to the state, adding that the “well-worded” resolution addresses the grazing issue “in a pretty reasonable and logical way.”

“I think what we’ve got here is a pretty darn good result versus what we might have ended up with,” he said. “In terms of what (the resolution) actually says, I’m pleased with it and I think this is worth our support.”

But he said he doesn’t think the issue is necessarily going away, adding that he has no reason to believe the regional boards will not take any action on the matter.

“The biggest unknown, which has nothing to do with this resolution, is what each regional board chooses to do,” he said. “Everybody needs to be watching the actions of the regional boards and see how they will handle this and at what rate they choose to pursue some kind of grazing oversight.”

The resolution directs the regional boards to “assess their current regulatory and/or nonregulatory strategies and to consider adapting these strategies to include implementation of best management practices that are supported by current information.”

Specifically, the state board directs the regional boards to:

Work collaboratively with ranchers to determine what management practices are best suited to protect water quality;
Consider prioritizing grazing operations that cause impairment based on unique hydrology, topography, climate and land use of that region;
Consider using best-management practices where appropriate;
Consider establishing monitoring requirements, including watershed-wide or regional monitoring programs, to assess effectiveness of best-management practices implemented under regulatory or nonregulatory actions;
Take actions to protect water quality and beneficial uses of waters from pollution, consistent with state and federal laws.

Giacomini said what ranchers don’t want is for the regional boards to replicate what they did with programs that currently regulate irrigated lands, in which farmers are assessed fees in order to provide information to agencies that will then “interpret it at their will and decide where to take it.”

“The worst case is just another bureaucracy built on our backs by charging us fees,” he said. “It’s not right on the irrigated lands programs and it certainly wouldn’t be any more appropriate on this.”

A better way for the regional boards to address water quality, Giacomini said, would be to use language from the resolution, identify true problem areas and adjust best-management practices on a site-by-site basis.

He noted ranchers have already made many improvements through the years to protect water quality, including moving cattle off streams and waterways, not allowing them to congregate in sensitive areas, creating offstream water sources and using fencing. He said these management practices are not only beneficial for the environment but simply “good business.”

Rancher Billie Roney, who runs cattle in Butte, Tehama and Lassen counties, said ranchers want to do the right thing for the environment “because that’s how we make a living.”

“Nobody wants to be the cause of pollution,” she said. “We’re very sensitive to riparian habitat, as are most ranchers. Everything we do for those cows is something that is intentionally there to also enhance the habitat, and everybody benefits from it when it’s done correctly.”

She said she and some ranchers are still trying to sort out what’s in the resolution and have questions about some of the more “nuanced” language in it. Before supporting the resolution, she said she wants to understand all the implications.

“This is probably one of the more important battles that cattlemen are going to face,” Roney said.

Permission for use is granted from the California Farm Bureau Federation. Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at