Marin County Posts, Then Removes, Bacteria Warning Signs at Point Reyes Beaches

Last week, the Pacific Sun reported that rivers of dangerous E. coli bacteria are invading lagoons and beaches at the Point Reyes National Seashore. A lab toxicology report commissioned by two environmental groups in January found extremely high levels of fecal bacteria at Kehoe Lagoon, Abbott’s Lagoon, and Drakes Estero. The report traced the source of the disease-causing pollution to defecating cow herds on neighboring dairy ranches.

The park’s newly installed Superintendent, Craig Kenkel, said that the toxicology findings are consistent with high fecal bacteria levels at these sites measured by the Park Service in 2013.

That report identified unacceptable levels of fecal bacteria in waters draining from McClure Ranch, abutting Abbotts Lagoon, and Kehoe Ranch at Kehoe Lagoon. It identified abnormal levels of fecal bacteria at Chicken Ranch Beach on Tomales Bay, which is a popular swimming destination. Park waters also suffer from excessive levels of nitrogen due to the flow of cow excrement. Nitrogen fuels vegetative growth that chokes drainages and kills fish and frogs, harming birds that eat aqua life.

A 2013 National Park Service report found that there were unacceptable levels of fecal bacteria in waters throughout the Point Reyes National Seashore.

Kenkel said that ranchers are required to practice pollution mitigation measures. But repeated water quality tests are showing that the contamination of lagoons, streams, pools, and beaches by ranching activities continues to present a clear and present danger to the wading and swimming public. Also threatened are endemic wildlife and plants, many of which are clinging to existence in the cattle-damaged environment.

After reading the Pacific Sun article, a Marin-based professional wildlife photographer named Jocelyn Knight had had enough. On Monday, Knight sent copies of the article “Fecal Bacteria Poisons Point Reyes Beaches” and the lab report issued by McCampbell Analytical Inc. of Pittsburgh, California to Arti Kundu, PhD. at Environmental Health Services (EHS), the county agency charged with testing for water safety at Marin beaches, including at several sites inside the park. Alarmed, Kundu leapt into action.

By way of background: The Park Service website states, “EHS works cooperatively with the NPS to collect water samples and post advisory signage as needed at the designated sampling sites. … Lagoons, such as those found at Abbotts Lagoon, Kehoe Beach, and occasionally at Drakes Beach, and similar bodies of water can be hazardous areas for swimming … Rainfall runoff and stream flow from surrounding agricultural areas flows into the lagoons potentially carrying harmful bacteria with it.”

Despite full awareness of the toxicity problem, the Park Service does not post signs warning visitors that they and their children are in danger of being infected by meningitis, septicemia, urinary tract and intestinal infections, diarrhea, pneumonia and respiratory illness. Kundu and Knight set out to remedy that decades-long oversight.

Due to coronavirus restrictions, county and park officials mostly work from home. Without meeting in person, Kundu secured Knight three bilingual Marin County signs stating “WARNING, water contact may cause illness, bacteria levels exceed health standards.” Knight drove to Point Reyes and attached the signs with screws into the appropriate wood posts for displaying official notices. She recounted that people strolling by as she labored thanked her for posting the warning, saying they had had no idea about the bacterial threat.

Sadly, no good deed goes unpunished.

On Wednesday, the Pacific Sun reached out to Kundu and her boss, Greg Pirie. What a difference a day makes. Kundu was not available for an interview. In a phone call, Pirie said that the Point Reyes National Seashore beaches are not under the jurisdiction of the County. When asked why several of the national park’s beaches are listed on the EHS website as regularly monitored by the county for water safety, Pirie said he had not known that fact.

Kundu was dispatched to the park to remove the signs. The Pacific Sun asked Pirie under what authority his division was removing the signs installed by Knight if his agency had no jurisdiction inside the park? Grappling with a Catch-22, Pirie said the signs are county property.

Notably, Kundu, the county employee, was allowed to travel outside her home office to remove the warning signs, but she was not allowed to travel and post them. Catch-22.

The Pacific Sun reached out to park Superintendent Craig Kenkel asking what he planned to do about the “dangerous situation.” Kenkel passed the baton to Melanie Gunn, who responded with an email linking to the Environmental Impact Statement for a proposed amendment to the park’s General Management Plan, as if the answer lurked therein. Gunn’s response begged the question: Why has the Park Service not posted visible warnings at E. coli polluted beaches?

The Park Service has a documented history of tolerating environmental degradations caused by commercially-owned cattle and ranching enterprises. At Point Reyes, preserving private ranching businesses appears to be a higher priority than preserving wildlife and clean water, the park administration’s record of inaction on these issues shows.

Will that inaction change to action?

Last week, Kenkel told a Zoom meeting designed to introduce him to the public that he is a born and bred rancher and loves pot roast and the smell of farm soil. Then, to the astonishment of the participants, Kenkel proclaimed that he firmly supports “Alternative F” in the aforementioned Environmental Impact Statement. Speaking quietly from his Zoom box, a Park Service staff member told Kenkel that Alternative F calls for eliminating ranching from the Park.

Kenkel corrected himself, saying that he supports issuing 20 year leases to the ranchers, but the Freudian slip was not unnoticed. Could it be that the Park Service professional really does not want the cow-based economy to ruin the ancient ecology of Point Reyes while exacerbating global heating with massive methane gas releases? Or will neoliberal, privatizing politics trump responsible ecological practices desired by the masses?

The Pacific Sun has several times asked Kenkel if the Park Service will install its own warning signs at the sites of fecal bacterial pollution. We are awaiting a response.

Congressman Jared Huffman did not respond to a query concerning his position on warning the public about ranching-derived fecal bacteria pollution at park beaches.

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