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Rangeland Short Course... Setting a trend

RESEARCH: RANGELAND SHORT COURSE …SETTING A TREND
Evaluation of California’s Rangeland Water Quality Education Program – Stephanie Larson, Kelly Smith, David Lewis, John Harper, Melvin George

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Davis, CA – Mel George wasn’t out to start a trend when he decided to set up a short course on water quality issues for owners of California’s 17 million acres of private rangeland.

With water quality regulations for non-point source pollution inevitable, it just seemed like the logical course to follow. Many ranchers thought so, too. In 1990, the state’s ranchers developed a program of voluntary compliance with the U.S. Clean Water Act, federal and state coastal zone regulations, and California’s own clean-water legislation, the Porter-Cologne Act.

In 1995, the State Water Resources Control Board, part of California’s Environmental Protection Agency, approved the California Rangeland Water Quality Management Plan for non-federal lands. The plan was put together by University of California Cooperative Extension, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and other state advisory committees and consultants. That opened the door for George, a range management specialist at the University of California, to develop the course for ranchers to help them identify potential pollution sources on their land.

Between 1992 and 1996, with funding from the State Water Resources Control Board, George and his co-workers from UC Cooperative Extension – including livestock and range management advisors Stephanie Larson and John Harper – designed and tested the course.

“By 1997, we stabilized the course and material,” says George. “Two years ago, we hit one million acres. That really caught people’s attention, that cattlemen would voluntarily come to short courses and put one million acres under plans.”

In the early 1990’s, nobody was doing anything like the course, says George. University of California Cooperative Extension still focused on agricultural commodities, but not water quality and agriculture.

“I can remember in meetings that people couldn’t believe that we were talking about ‘bad’ things like water pollution instead of a bag of new seed or fertilizer,” George recalls.

Between 1997 and 2002, 777 people participated in 50 short courses. Ranch sizes ranged from less than 500 acres to more than 50,000 – 47 percent were less than 500 acres and 37 percent were 1,000 to 5,000 acres. Most of those attending were ranchers; others included agency employees and teachers. Some were anti-government, and reluctant to participate.

In the course, participants learned about non-point source pollution associated with ranching; basin plans and assessments, including the state’s impaired water body list; and about the non-point source pollution measure, the total maximum daily load of sediment in water. Most rangeland owners developed plans that included descriptions of their ranch, ranch goals, maps, and water quality status. They assessed non-point source pollution on their property, looked at the methods they used to manage their property, and planned new management practices.

Last year, George and his co-workers evaluated the effectiveness of the short course. Of the 440 (61 percent) who responded to a survey, most have assessed the trouble spots on their property and have started making changes. Before the course, most said they were taking it to avoid regulation. After the course, however, they were more interested in reducing non-point source pollution on their lands, which shows, says George, how education can change attitudes. However, less than half have implemented a monitoring program. That’s a weakness of rangeland stewardship programs throughout the West, say George and the other authors of the survey.

Still, George thinks that education, cost-sharing and technical support work better than imposing regulations without education, cost-sharing and technical support. Most ranchers are improving their land management and protecting water quality. They realize that good stewardship is preferable to $25,000-a-day fines for not controlling pollution sources.

The short course had some unintended results. After taking the course, 156 landowners said they became more interested in the work of local watershed groups and 66 helped organize watershed groups. A few joined existing watershed councils organized by environmental groups. One was appointed to the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Other people have established programs patterned on the short course, says George. In San Luis Obispo and Northern Santa Barbara counties, UC Cooperative Extension horticulture farm advisor Mary Bianchi set up a short course for farmers who grow row crops. The Fish Friendly Farming program was established for grape growers in the Russian, Navarro and Gualala watersheds in 1999, and in Napa County, as the Napa Green Certification Program, in 2003. With funding from the U.S. Renewable Resources Extension Act, which is administered by UC Cooperative Extension, watershed management advisor David Lewis set up a series of sediment workshops for watershed advisory councils along California’s north coast.

George still teaches the rangeland short course, and has also put the course on a Web site (http://californiarangeland.ucdavis.edu, click on “Ranch Water Quality Planning”).

Although he feels progress has been made, there’s still a long way to go, says George – 90 percent of California’s rangeland, in fact.

“We grabbed the early adopters,” he explains. “Our experience is that more people attended short courses along the coast because of water quality issues there. The Sierra foothills haven’t felt the pressure yet.”

-- by Jane Ellen Stevens
July 2004

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