University of California

Private Roads


Yorkville, CA. -- Larry Mailliard stands along the bend of a dirt road and looks down at a 35-foot-wide gully. “It was just a gross polluter,” says the manager of the 14,962-acre Mailliard Ranch. “The walls were so steep that it was cutting back further and further and further.”

Mailliard and his foreman spent several days grading, removing debris and dumping in large rocks to stabilize the site. “That was in 2001,” he explains. “It has not sloughed or skipped. It’s stayed perfectly in place. It was a major, major source of sediment. It’s one of the best fixes I can point my finger at.”

John Harper thinks so, too. Harper, a livestock and natural resources advisor with University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) in Mendocino County, organized the workshop on roads maintenance where Mailliard learned how to fix the gully. Harper has brought several workshop participants on field trips to examine the fixes.

Mailliard (pronounced “my-YARD”) is one of more than 500 landowners, ranch managers and regulators who have attended one of 17 road maintenance workshops organized by UCCE advisors. In 2001, when it became clear that unpaved roads were a major source of sediment polluting the state’s streams, Harper and Sheila Barry, UCCE natural resources and livestock advisor for several San Francisco Bay Area counties, organized workshops that looked at erosion from roads. Gary Nakamura, UCCE area forestry specialist in Shasta County, obtained a grant from the Renewable Resources Extension Act, which is administered by UC Cooperative Extension, to offer more workshops in several counties.

Thousands of miles of road – most of it unpaved – run through California’s privately owned forests and rangelands. Under the watchful eye of the state’s forestry regulators, large timber companies have been engineering, constructing and maintaining their roads since the 1970s. Too much sediment chokes streams and rivers, burying the gravel that salmon and steelhead need to spawn.

Until recently, private landowners with smaller holdings haven’t paid much attention to their roads. But with state and federal water quality regulations now affecting them, they also have to reduce sediment erosion.

Rivers in Trouble

At the heart of the regulations is this: Twenty-four rivers in Northern California have been severely damaged by years of pollution. Some rivers’ pollutants are pesticides or heavy metals. Others are choked by sediment eroded from human activities, such as agriculture, logging, and development. The state wants a 90 percent reduction of all human-caused sediment pollution over the next 40 years. The Garcia and Gualala rivers provide a good case study as to why.

In the early 1900s, millions of salmon and steelhead migrated up the Gualala and Garcia rivers. The annual runs were so famous that thousands of anglers from around the world flocked to the rivers. They lined the banks and, from the clear waters, pulled fish from the throngs that made their way up the river into hundreds of small streams to their spawning grounds. Today, a few thousand steelhead and salmon have returned to the Garcia, where some restoration work has occurred. Only a few hundred fish return to the Gualala every year.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the California Water Resources Control Board have set limits – called total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) -- on pollutants allowed in the rivers to keep them clean for fish, recreation, drinking water and other beneficial uses. Pollution from specific points -- such as the wastewater pipes of sewage treatment plants or factories -- is fairly easy to identify, set limits on and monitor. However, it’s practically impossible to pinpoint sources of pollution that doesn’t come from pipes -- such as sediment that erodes from hundreds of fields and roads to flow through large watersheds into rivers.

So, rather than set daily limits on sediment, regulators have decided to ask landowners to reduce the number of sites that produce sediment. They require landowners to identify sites on their property that erode sediment, and to reduce the erosion. Sites may include road gullies, eroding stream banks, livestock pens or pathways from which mud flows into a stream.

Because it can cost as much as $50 per acre for a consultant to identify sediment erosion sites, UCCE advisors with input from representatives from several organizations -- the California Farm Bureau Federation, the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service and the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board -- developed a method for landowners to inventory their own lands. So far, more than 800 landowners representing one million of the state’s 17 million privately owned acres of rangeland have attended water-quality workshops where those methods are taught. The roads-maintenance workshops provided the next step: practical steps to reduce sediment erosion.

Fixing Roads on Mailliard Ranch

“Fifteen years ago, all the roads on this ranch were ruts,” says Mailliard. The former contractor worked on the ranch every summer of his youth from the time he was 12 years old, and began managing the timber and cattle ranch full-time in 1988. The ranch was acquired in small parcels by his grandfather from 1925 to 1986, and is now owned by the members of the extended Mailliard family.

In the last four years, Mailliard has attend three roads maintenance courses and taken his foreman to one of them. He’s received funding from the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), a cost-sharing program that provides money for engineering, equipment and materials. Landowners usually provide the labor.

Mailliard has re-engineered roads, replaced culverts, and stabilized hillsides. He restricts road use during the winter rainy season. “Because roads are considered the No. 1 source of sediment, we don’t allow the use of them, unless it is a year-round rocked road,” he explains, referring to a thick bed of gravel spread on the road to prevent erosion.

Mailliard thinks his streams, one of which runs into the Garcia River, are recovering from the years of damage that occurred in the mid-1900s when his grandfather, like most people in the timber industry, used logging methods that are now outdated. During the winters, deeply rutted roads sloughed tons of sediment into streams. Workers cut down trees to the edge of creek beds, which filled with bark and limbs peeled as the logs were cleaned. “That all washed out every year,” says Mailliard. “They counted on the stream to clean up their mess.”

The first logging rules went into effect in the 1970s. “My theory is that we have just seen the result of those rules,” says Mailliard. “The run of steelhead up here is phenomenal. Just driving along here, I’ve counted 130 fish, spawning steelhead, this year. I’m impressed with that.” There’s room for improvement, though – he remembers when salmon used to spawn in the same streams.

Still, learning how to engineer and maintain the roads remains a challenge. Mailliard is sure a repair will hold only if it’s still there after a major storm barrels through. A couple of his fixes have simply washed away. “Mother Nature said ‘Gotcha’ -- it’s just constant monitoring,” he sighs.

Nevertheless, Mailliard’s successes have propelled him to tackle his largest project yet. He’s applying for a $150,000 grant to improve five miles of road that was poorly engineered and poorly maintained since it was built in the 1960s.

An Imperfect Solution

In the effort to restore fish habitat, landowners and regulators find themselves dealing with an imperfect system. In the Garcia River TMDL, the water board defines an erosion site as one that could slough at least 10 cubic yards of sediment into a stream over 40 years. Ten cubic yards is about one dump truck load. According to Harper, that works out to about one large wheelbarrow of sediment each year. Regulators arrived at this figure after examining aerial photos of private lands to identify erosion sites and by looking at the 20 percent of streams to which they had access. Since landowners generally don’t allow government regulators on their land, the figure is, at best, an estimate. There’s often no way to tell from the air whether an erosion site is natural or human-caused. Streams need to be walked and monitored.

When the water quality control board came out with the regulation, Harper, UCCE rangeland watershed specialist Ken Tate, and UCCE watershed management advisor David Lewis decided to analyze 117 erosion sites on 10 ranches. They found that 99.6 percent of the sediment-eroding sites were on unstable areas. Those areas are about evenly divided between land that is still recovering from outmoded, discontinued agricultural and logging practices, and naturally eroding hills or canyons where the slightest shudder from an earthquake or days of hard rain can set tons of dirt into motion.

The north coast of California is one long natural erosion zone. The thousands of pinnacles of rocks – called sea stacks -- jutting from the waters along the shore used to be embedded in soil. Humans had nothing to do with that erosion. And, according to Harper and Lewis’ research, the human contribution to sediment erosion today is less than 1 percent.

Some of the large areas can be stabilized, but the engineering efforts and financial costs can be “likened to CalTrans efforts to control mountain slides on the Pacific Coast Highway,” according to the researchers. Many landowners would like to prevent their hills from sliding away, because they lose grazing pasture and timberland. But preventing huge slides of the magnitude found on an entire hillside will require “the cooperative efforts of regulators, landowners and restoration funding agencies,” says the study, which was published in California Agriculture in August 2001.

The study pointed out one other glitch: current measurement tools aren’t precise enough to detect sediment changes of less than one percent in a stream. Until new tools are developed, there’s no way to document the success or failure of the changes that landowners make on their property.

However, the good news from the study was that, of the less than one percent of erosion that is caused by humans, most came from roads. It gave landowners something on which to focus.

Harper, Lewis and Tate also found that if the limit of 10 cubic yards were raised to 100 cubic yards, more than 99 percent of the eroding sediment would be identified. In other words, sites that are eroding less than 100 cubic yards over 40 years contribute so little to the total, that they’re not worth the time and money involved in identifying and improving them.

Besides the TMDL for sediment, there will soon be one for temperature. Warm streams – usually those where trees and shrubs that provide cooling shade have been removed -- also destroy fish habitat by eliminating their food and killing their eggs. For the last six years, many landowners and timber companies along the North Coast have been working with UCCE to monitor the temperatures of their streams so that they have data to show the effects of their agricultural and logging activities.

But for streams with high water temperatures, there’s no formula for lowering them. Harper, Lewis and UCCE farm advisor Stephanie Larson are doing research to figure out what makes a successful re-vegetation site. “We’re determining effective practices,” says Harper. “If planting trees at headwaters doesn’t make a big difference in temperature, we want to be able to say, ‘Don’t spend money and time doing it’.”

For all his work, Mailliard thinks there should be some reward for a rancher’s stewardship besides “getting the agency off your back.”

“All of these creeks are listed for sediment,” he says, referring to the water quality control board actions. “I want an un-listing criteria to be set in the program.”

Some regulations are necessary to get the ball rolling, says Harper. “Then we need to spend time and incentives on carrots because we get more work done that way,” he points out. “Regulations are a band-aid. If you want to change attitudes, skill level or awareness, education’s the key.”

And, says Mailliard, “Good stewardship needs to be given its reward.”

Making a Difference, One Landowner at a Time

At least 1,000 people have attended roads workshops sponsored UCCE and other organizations, such as local Resource Conservation Districts, says UCCE forestry specialist Richard Harris, who has been responsible for most of the UCCE-sponsored roads workshops. He’s also incorporated sessions on private roads in UCCE forest-steward workshops.

But less than one percent of the people who could use the information have received it. “We estimated the number of landowners who could benefit from improved knowledge at 500,000,” notes Harris. To help reach more landowners, Harris and others are working on an RREA grant to develop a Web-based interactive road assessment tool.

Still, fixing private roads is catching on. Over the last few years, about 70 percent of funding for fisheries restoration on the California coast – about $8 million/year -- is spent on upgrading or de-commissioning roads, explains Harris.

“I would attribute this increased activity to an increased awareness of the problems associated with rural roads,” he notes. “The information is floating around in the air in rural counties, and residents are inhaling it whether they go to a formal workshop or not. Also, their neighbors are doing things and that may wake them up.”

-- Jane Stevens
February 2005

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