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University of California
RREA

Cattle

AL PONCIA, CATTLE RANCHER

Marin County, CA -- After Al Poncia fenced off a creek, created smaller pastures and a put in a livestock watering system on his cattle and sheep ranch, about 50 ranchers stopped by to take a look. There’s not much to see yet – it’ll take a while for trees, shrubs and grasses to grow back along the eroded creek. But so far, about 10 ranchers, keen to increase profits and to avoid dealing with regulatory hassles, have followed Poncia’s lead.

Like Poncia, they’ve realized that water belongs to everyone who uses it, not just the owners of the land that it runs through. And every eroded creek can turn into a riparian home for birds, bass, steelhead trout, or coho salmon.

“We can certainly improve our land and the area in which we live,” says Poncia, who ranches 700 acres. “We can hopefully meet regulatory situations and do it voluntarily without having regulations put upon us.”

California has 40 million acres of land, 17 million of which is privately owned rangeland. 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 California Water Resources Control Board, part of the state’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 Mel George, a University of California range management specialist, to develop a short course to help ranchers identify pollution sources and develop plans to clean them up.

Since 1997, when UC Cooperative Extension started offering the courses, landowners of 1.3 million acres have taken steps to decrease water pollution or water use.

Poncia began his foray into improving water quality when members of the local Brookside School Shrimp Club asked him if he’d be interested in restoring Stemple Creek to bring back the fairy shrimp, an endangered species. The club had money for fencing, which Poncia installed to keep cattle and sheep out of the creek. The enthusiastic students planted willows, shrubs and native grasses.

“If took about seven years to see results,” says Poncia. “It looks better. The willows extend over it during the summer. The creek banks have stabilized. We’ve found shrimp. We get bass in Stemple Creek now.”

In 2000, Stephanie Larson, UC Cooperative Extension livestock and range management advisor, and Jon Gustafson, NRCS state rangeland management specialist, asked Poncia if he was interested in trying something else.

“The big push is for ranchers to fence out creeks,” says Larson. “That’s been going on for about five years now. We wanted to do a demonstration project to show that fencing didn’t impede the operation of a ranch.”

The plan was to divide one big field into five smaller pieces of 15 to 20 acres each, fence off a seasonal creek that had been denuded and whose banks were eroding, and put in watering stations so that the cows wouldn’t use the creek. The goal: silt-free water running downstream and a restored riparian habitat. Larson obtained a $10,000 grant from the Renewable Resources Extension Act, which is administered by UC Cooperative Extension, for the labor to install the fencing and for three educational meetings to show the project to local ranchers. NRCS provided the engineering to put in a small pump that moves water to two tanks that send it to five troughs.

Poncia rotates the cows through the smaller pastures, a couple of which he fertilizes with a neighbor’s cow manure. On one of those fields, he’s harvested 900 bales of grass hay to feed his cattle during the winter.

“It simply works,” says Poncia, who’s making similar changes in three other large fields. “It gives us an opportunity to manage a lot better than under the conditions we had in the past. Actually, we even increased our carrying capacity by about five cows in this field. I thought it’d be less, but it’s actually been more.”

Now, the question is: how do people like Larson and Gustafson reach the other 200 ranchers in Marin and Sonoma counties who also need to improve the water quality on their land. For that matter, how will they reach the owners of the remaining 15 million acres of rangeland in California?

Given a larger budget, Larson would install more riparian fencing and pastures in different situations, locations, and stream types and bring in ranchers to see how they could implement the practices on their properties.

As Mel George notes: Education may seem to take a long time, but, in the long run, it’s cheaper and more friendly than regulation.

-- by Jane Ellen Stevens
February 2004

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