Western Watersheds Project Wyoming Director Jon Ratner has made quite a stir over the last few years, monitoring stream quality in areas where cattle graze, sometimes crossing private property to do so.
“What our work over the last decade has found is that virtually everywhere that livestock grazing is found, you will have violations of state water quality standards.”
He says, when he gave his data to the DEQ, he got push back. In fact, in the last legislative session, two new statutes shut down his data collection by prohibiting trespassing.
Now, several conservation groups have sharply criticized a downgrade of 76% of the state’s waterways by the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality. Ratner's group claims the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality decision was more concerned with protecting grazing livestock than water quality.
Ratner says the recent downgrade benefits ranchers since now they won’t have to build fences around streams or pump water out for stock pond to meet state quality standards. He says, when he’s tried to get the DEQ to take action on polluted streams he says the agency has been unresponsive.
“It just became clear very quickly that the intent was to avoid listing streams under the Clean Water Act for any reason whatsoever.”
But Wyoming Conservation Districts Director Bobbie Frank says the re-classification had nothing to do with Ratner’s monitoring.
“It’s unfortunately being mashed together and painted as one issue as an ag vs. environmental or ag vs. recreation,” she says. “And that’s bad because it’s not. We need to work together for water quality.”
Frank says it’s not only cattle that introduce bacteria like e. coli. She says a recent study by the Teton Conservation District shows wildlife and birds to be higher sources of the bacteria than cattle.
“We have some districts that are embarking on [that research]. Teton Conservation District did do a study several years ago to get down to identifying basically whether it’s human, whether it’s animal. And that’s an evolving science.”
A science to identify if the source of the e. coli is wildlife or cattle, for instance. She says, such information is in everyone’s interest since livestock grazers benefit from clean water, too. Frank says, people who have questions should call their local conservation district about specific streams in their area that have been re-classified.
“What I’d hate to see is that we throw out four or five-year’s worth of work that’s verifiable and defensible.”
But outdoor groups say it’s not defensible since the data wasn’t collected on the ground. Instead, the downgrade was made across the board for all streams deemed too low flow to swim in.
Wyoming Outdoor Council Board Member Harold Bergman served on the Wyoming Environmental Quality Council for many years. He agrees with the need to develop a science to narrow down the animal source of e. coli.
“Is it wildlife? Is it cattle? If it’s cattle, maybe we need less pressure from grazing in those areas.”
But he also questions the tactics of the Western Watershed Project and other groups using water quality to tackle the issue of grazing on public lands.
“These groups from elsewhere have tried to use the water quality issue to constrain the use of public lands for public land grazing. Which is a long, long time traditional use of public land by agriculture in the West.”
Currently the DEQ is taking written comments on the downgrade at their website and will be hosting a public forum in Casper on September 16.