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Water: Nonpoint Source Success Stories

Information and Education Programs - Ranch Water Quality Planning: Voluntary Rangeland Management Eases Impacts on California Watersheds

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Story Separation Bar
Chris Chaloupka
Nonpoint Source Agriculture Unit
State Water Resources Control Board

Mel George
University of California Cooperative Extension–Davis

There are more than 40 million acres of rangeland in California, half of which is in private ownership and provides 90 percent of the forage base. Most of this acreage is located at strategic mid-level elevations, between California's upper elevations and urban and agricultural uses in valley and coastal areas. More than 9,000 miles of waterways drain the area. California's major water supply reservoirs are located on rangeland, and eight of the state's major drainage basins are dominated by commonly grazed vegetation.

Streams that once could depend on riparian vegetation to keep them cool and clean have become degraded. Their riparian vegetation has been stripped, their trampled banks are collapsing, and their temperatures are rising. The water quality problems include nutrients and pathogens, erosion, and sedimentation. Some of the more serious impacts have threatened the state's drinking water supply with bacterial contamination and caused significant declines in the state's cold-water salmon and steelhead trout fishery.

With partial funding through 319 grants, the University of California Cooperative Extension, in cooperation with the California Cattlemen's Association and others, has developed and is presenting a voluntary Ranch Water Quality Planning Short Course. In the course, ranchers receive information to assist them in making an assessment of nonpoint source pollution on their land and to help them determine the extent to which their operation might be causing the problem. The program is voluntary, and individual ranchers, at their own discretion, may or may not use outside technical assistance.

Various materials are provided to help the ranchers: aerial photographs and maps of their lands; monitoring strategies, including photo-point monitoring and residual ground covering monitoring; and informative, easy-to-understand, one-page information sheets on a variety of pertinent topics that provide the basic kinds of information needed to understand the ecological relationships among rain, soil, plants, grazing animals, and water quality.

If a rancher decides that few or no changes need to be made in the ranch operation, a short Letter of Intent declaring the finding is to be written to become a part of the personal ranch record. If problems are identified that the rancher determines result from the operation, the rancher is encouraged to complete a Rangeland Water Quality Management Plan. The plan is done at the discretion of the rancher. If done, the plan indicates the structural and operational changes the rancher intends to implement to eliminate polluted runoff from the land. The plan becomes a part of the personal ranch record, and local Natural Resources Conservation Service representatives are available to offer technical and financial assistance if the rancher chooses to use their services.

In the first year of program operation, about 100 ranchers, who own or manage some 400,000 acres of ranchland, enrolled for Ranch Water Quality Planning Short Courses. Since September 1997 plans have been completed for approximately 475,000 acres along the coast and in the San Joaquin Valley and foothills. The State Water Resources Control Board and the Regional Water Quality Control Boards are committed to this approach and continue to support the program with section 319 funds and staff participation. Cooperative Extension routinely schedules additional courses throughout California.

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