Taos Canyon Water Samples Link E. coli Pollution to Cattle Grazing

Posted in: United States Water News, Water Contamination, Water Crisis
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Jerry Yeargin stands in the riparian area of the upper Río Fernando in Taos Canyon. For 16 years, Yeargin has been complaining about the damage grazing causes the river. Water quality experts note that cattle are only one of the factors causing poor water quality and reduced streamflow in the river that eventually runs through the center of Taos. Photo credit: Taos News

Article courtesy of J.R.Logan | December 22, 2014 | Taos News | Shared as educational material

Growing concerns over water contamination from livestock in the Rio Fernando could be reaching a breaking point.

A Forest Service official is expressing frustration after improvements meant to protect water quality on public lands have gone unfinished for years. At the same time, local environmental advocates are close to securing funding for a plan to address pollution in the Río Fernando, from its headwaters up Taos Canyon to its confluence with the Río Grande 20 miles downstream.

The signs of movement and cooperation follow years of complaining from county residents decrying worsening conditions on the watershed caused by livestock grazing and an unwillingness by the Forest Service to do anything about it.

In July, the board of local environmental group Amigos Bravos board passed a resolution recommending the Forest Service remove cattle from some riparian portions of the forest, including the La Jara pasture — one of several enclosures on Forest Service land used to graze cattle in the Flechado Allotment up Taos Canyon. The recommendation was part of a broader call for action to address contamination from various sources up and down the river.

“The contamination in the Río Fernando is a threat to the public health and safety of the Taos community and is unacceptable,” the resolution reads.

The resolution was attached to a letter sent by Amigos Bravos Executive Director Brian Shields to the Forest Service’s regional forester. “Our long-standing concern is with the fact that the waters of the Río Fernando — which runs through the heart of the communities of Tienditas, Taos Canyon and the Town of Taos, including popular recreation areas and irrigated farm lands — have not met water quality standards protective of human health since we started collecting water samples seven years ago,” the letter reads.

The letter argues recent water samples show “irrefutably and conclusively” that cattle are the “single major contributor to E. coli contaminations.” The letter pointed to water samples taken at the mouth of La Jara Canyon immediately before and immediately after cattle grazed there last summer. Samples showed no trace of E. coli just before cows went into the pasture, the letter said. Samples taken two days after the cows left the pasture show E. coli levels 1.5 times higher than the water quality standard limit.

In September, Amigos Bravos and Forest Service officials met, along with local elected officials and activists, to discuss grazing in La Jara Canyon. A subsequent letter from the regional forester offered support for a watershed based plan being prepared by Amigos Bravos. However, the regional forester said the Forest Service “would not entertain” the request to remove cattle from the La Jara pasture.

The regional forester referenced a 2009 Environmental Assessment that prescribed several remedies — such as moving cattle waterers away from springs and fencing off sensitive riparian areas — to control E. coli contamination “over the long-run.”

But five years after that environmental study was approved, almost none of the remedies have been done. This, even after the permittee who grazes there, Herman Manzanares of Abiquiu, has been repeatedly instructed to make those changes.

Tammy Malone, district ranger for the Camino Real, oversees grazing on the Flechado Allotment. She said in an interview Tuesday (Dec. 16) forest officials are “frustrated” with the lack of action on the Manzanares’ part. “Some of this stuff has been on the list for years now,” Malone said. “He’s not stepping up.”

The environmental assessment for the allotment says that water quality will be the measure by which the Forest Service gauges the effectiveness of its plan. Given the water contamination measured immediately after cows left the La Jara pasture this year, the agency is not meeting its goal of keeping E. coli pollution in check.

Malone acknowledged that if the remedies called for in the assessment aren’t done, the pollution mitigation plan is “only as good as the piece of paper it’s written on.”

And while the agency has the authority to take steps to penalize the permitee if he fails to follow instructions, it hasn’t done so. Part of the reason could be grazers enjoy immense political support that can make Forest Service bureaucrats wary of flexing their muscle. But Malone said things in the Flechado may be reaching a breaking point. “We’re going to have to take it to letters of non-compliance to get the guy to do this stuff,” Malone said.

Manzanares told The Taos News in April he’s been unable to do things like move waterers because he’s been busy making other fixes, like spending thousands of dollars rebuilding a fence along the eastern boundary of the allotment. In the past, Manzares’ cattle have wandered out of the forest and onto private property in the Moreno Valley, and he’s been forced by the village of Angel Fire to pay expensive fines for wayward cows.

Malone said she’s aware of the time and money Manzares has put in to those sorts of improvements. But she said it’s time the priorities for improvements change.

Malone did say the Forest Service did not plan on keeping cattle out of the La Jara Pasture entirely. Instead, she said completing changes prescribed by the environmental assessment, as well as limiting the number of cattle and time they’re in the pasture, could alleviate much of the problem.

Rachel Conn, programs director for Amigos Bravos disagrees. She said in an email Tuesday (Dec. 17) that even if these changes are put in place, there would still be contamination from grazing.

Conn said Amigos Bravos was a finalist for funding from the state to do watershed planning for the Rio Fernando with a focus on E. coli contamination. While Conn said grazing has been closely linked to pollution, it’s not the only contributor. Animal waste, septic systems and even a leaking sewer line in town are all suspected of polluting parts of the river, Conn said.

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