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Risk lurks in Sierra waters

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Risk lurks in Sierra waters

Postby copeg » Wed Apr 26, 2006 6:45 am

From the San Jose Mercury News
Posted on Wed, Apr. 26, 2006

Risk lurks in Sierra waters
STUDY SHOWS E. COLI LEVELS FROM CATTLE
By Paul Rogers
Mercury News
Bay Area hikers heading to the Sierra Nevada this summer should be extra careful about where they find their drinking water, particularly if cows are nearby.

That's the upshot of a new study that found cattle-grazing in national forests between Lake Tahoe and Mount Whitney is the leading source of E. coli contamination in Sierra streams and lakes.

In fact, nearly every stream and lake frequented by cattle or pack animals contained unsafe levels of E. coli -- a bacterium found in livestock waste that can produce severe stomach illness and even kidney failure in humans. Areas without livestock -- even those regularly visited by backpackers -- almost never had E. coli in streams and lakes, according to the research.

Primary source

``The impact is significant. Livestock, primarily cattle, pollute the environment,'' said Dr. Robert Derlet, a physician at the University of California-Davis and co-author of the study, published in the latest issue of Wilderness and Environmental Medicine.

``They are the main source of microbial pollution in the Sierra.''

Derlet's research is the first to definitively compare the effects of livestock, campers, pack animals and wildlife in causing Sierra water pollution. It is expected to increase calls for the U.S. Forest Service to curtail grazing and pack animals in Sierra wilderness areas.

Daniel Cobb, a veteran outdoorsman who teaches backpacking classes for the Sierra Club's Loma Prieta chapter, based in Palo Alto, said he is more than familiar with the health risk.

Two years ago, Cobb and a group of backpackers encountered cattle in a remote area of the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness, on national forest land between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park.

``There were 20 or 30 cows in the forest,'' Cobb said. ``One of our hikers came down with a fairly serious intestinal problem. He swam in the river a couple of times. Our theory was maybe he had accidentally gulped more water than the rest of us.''

Cobb, 51, recommends backpackers use water filters or chemical tablets to purify all drinking water from lakes and streams.

Cattle and sheep have grazed Sierra meadows since the 1860s.

They are not allowed in national parks, such as Yosemite. But they are permitted in national forests, where ranchers pay $1.56 per cow per month to rent federally owned lands.

Ranchers hold about 450 permits to graze 60,000 cows and 36,000 sheep in California's national forests.

In the study, Derlet sampled 60 Sierra streams and lakes in the John Muir, Emigrant, Golden Trout and other wilderness areas, along with Yosemite and Sequoia-Kings Canyon national parks.

Backpackers OK

In 15 areas where backpackers regularly camp but no livestock are allowed, only one stream contained E. coli above the level considered safe by the World Health Organization. Similarly, only one of 15 areas with no backpackers or livestock was contaminated.

But 12 of 15 water bodies in areas frequented by pack animals, and all 15 where cattle graze, had unsafe levels.

Matt Mathes, a spokesman for the Forest Service in Vallejo, said two-thirds of all livestock on California's national forests are in the Sierra.

``It's always good to have additional scientific studies,'' Mathes said. ``This is something we are definitely going to follow up on.''

Mathes said Forest Service officials can try to keep cattle away from streams and lakes by locating water troughs and salt licks away from natural water bodies. In some instances they can fence areas off, but they rarely remove cattle altogether, as some environmentalists want.

Removing cattle is controversial among rural politicians, and Mathes says it could encourage urban sprawl by denying ranches in the Sierra foothills grazing land they need.

``Many of these ranches would go out of business and would become yet another housing subdivision,'' he said.

But environmentalists called the study a wake-up call for public health.

``Public land managers need to take this report seriously and really look at the numbers and kinds of animals they are allowing in the Sierra to protect the health of human visitors,'' said attorney Johanna Wald with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco.



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Livestock in Wilderness Areas

Postby cmon4day » Wed Apr 26, 2006 8:51 am

I will support any push by the forest service to curtail cattle grazing in Wilderness Areas. A couple of years ago I went on a week long backpack trip up in the Marble Mountian "Wilderness". This was the most unbelievable cattle grazing exploitation of the Wilderness I have ever seen. The damage done by the cattle was brutal. Not to mention the cow pies EVERYWHERE. There was a pristine lake called Deep Lake. When we got there the cows were in the water at the outlet of the lake.
Marble Mountain is one of the first Wilderness's created in California. Local ranchers had grazing rights when the wilderness was created. I understand their position and lifestyle, but come on. They are doing it because "they always have". It's time to revisist the grazing policy. The quality of grazing cannot be that good. The Wilderness cannot support that many head of cattle.

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Postby SSSdave » Wed Apr 26, 2006 5:49 pm

Many of we backpackers have strong negative feelings about the impact of cattle grazing in the Sierra. One hates to see favorite areas with cattle about because the fat mcburger beasts are so heavy their hooves demolish ground and vegetation with every step. And they prefer soft vegetation around small streams and in the process obliterate such more sensitive natural areas. Despite this I don't have a problem with letting cattle roam many areas. Mainly mid to lower forest and meadow areas. However I would like to see their access curtailed in higher Sierra areas especially near timberline. Areas south of Sonora Pass are mostly national park or already declared sensitive timberline wilderness so cattle are already barred and pack horses restricted. Areas north of Sonora Pass are however regularly grazed. One of my favorite areas is in the Mokelumne Wilderness north of Ebbetts Pass. Lots of cattle grazing in those areas do considerable damage to some of my favorite places. I've written Toyabe National Forest about it and my inputs are in the online internet record of national forest information used by the grazing coordinators. The main solution to the problem as I see it is to construct barbed wire fencing around large timberline zones that we want to keep out cattle. But the idea of fencing such areas is apparently monkeywrenched by those holding the money as I've never heard of any plans to implement fences. I suspect that many ranching folk would prefer to quietly continue the current status quo so that more of their potential grazing areas are not restricted in any way. Things will not change unless peons like us bother to complain. ...David
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Postby sierra_smitty » Thu Apr 27, 2006 8:54 pm

Anyone know for sure if E Coli is removed using water filtration systems or by boiling the water?

If it is true, I could care less...I've always filtered my water anyhow and a few cow pies don't bother me.
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Postby copeg » Thu Apr 27, 2006 9:43 pm

sierra_smitty wrote:Anyone know for sure if E Coli is removed using water filtration systems or by boiling the water?

If it is true, I could care less...I've always filtered my water anyhow and a few cow pies don't bother me.


From my understanding: Yes. E. coli is about 1-3 micro-meters in length, whereas your typical filter is 0.2-0.3 micro-meters, small enough to prevent E. coli from passing. Boiling will kill E. Coli. Chemical treatment will also most likely kill.

I recall hiking the JMT and passing a PCT hiker who told a story of not filtering water, and an hour later found himself upstream with several cows. A while later he came down with a bad case of the runs that sidelined him for several days.
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Postby Rosabella » Fri Apr 28, 2006 6:23 am

There has been such a swing over the years on whether it was necessary to filter water on the trail or if it was just a "hype" created by water filter manufactures and reactionists. Hiking in the 60's water filters were unheard of, and we never got sick using our sierra cups and drinking right out of a stream (of course, back then Dad also made jello every night for breakfast in the morning :puke:, and would leave it out right in camp and we never had a visit from a bear... go figure. Bear-resistant cannisters were also unheard of).

It wasn't until the 90's when we started filtering water. Occasionally, I've debated on leaving the filter at home, but the cautious side of me always prevails with the "better-safe-than-sorry" argument. I don't know how long it takes for an "exposure" of E.coli from cattle in a water source to dissipate enough to no longer be a health concern.
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Postby hikerduane » Fri Apr 28, 2006 7:00 am

Over on Backpacker.com last year, Steve Armstrong drug out some info about giardia dying off in the winter due to temps. Giardia gets reintroduced by humans and cattle, other critters the next year. The Sierra lakes away from cattle are supposed to be pretty clean and higher up also. Some guy, can't remember his name has done tests in the Yosemite area and has found good water there.

The authorities cover their butts when they tell you to filter or boil water.

I ran across a guy in the late summer of '04 in Dusy Basin, who spends his summer in the Sierra. Sort of a little strange, gets his food from bpers who have brought too much food, only has to go to town every once in awhile. He believes in water filters, I guess he got a bad case of giardia one year and that cured him.
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Postby nazdarovye » Fri Apr 28, 2006 9:43 am

I don't know if this is the same study, but I just got the lastest issue of the Journal of Wilderness Medicine, and it has an article stating the same thing.

Basically, every single water source near pack trails and stock grazing was contaminated with E. Coli, whereas pretty much none of the others were. Pretty cut and dried.

I know horses and mules are a part of the history of the west, and important for resupply of some high camps, but I do cringe when I see the messes they leave on our trails, especially considering the ratio of hikers to riders.

Time for Horse Diapers? ;-)
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Postby sierra_smitty » Fri Apr 28, 2006 11:15 pm

nazdarovye wrote:
I know horses and mules are a part of the history of the west, and important for resupply of some high camps, but I do cringe when I see the messes they leave on our trails, especially considering the ratio of hikers to riders.

Time for Horse Diapers? ;-)


When you're 70 and unable to carry a pack, you'll be very thankful for those pack stations, if they last that long. :lol: :lol:
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Postby nazdarovye » Sat Apr 29, 2006 12:15 am

sierra_smitty wrote:When you're 70 and unable to carry a pack, you'll be very thankful for those pack stations, if they last that long. :lol: :lol:


Oh, when I'm 70, I'll still be carrying a pack (and stepping around piles of horse s&*^, no doubt...)
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Postby dave54 » Sun Apr 30, 2006 3:34 pm

It's not up to the Forest Service to eliminate grazing from Wilderness Areas. It's up to Congress.


The Wilderness Act of 1964; section 4(d):

...the grazing of livestock, where established prior to September 3, 1964, shall be permitted to continue subject to such reasonable regulations as are deemed necessary by the Secretary of Agriculture...



Since 1964 both parties have held the majorities in Congress and both parties have occupied the White House. Neither party has put forth any effort to reform the Taylor Grazing Act nor the Mining Act of 1872 (which also trumps the Wilderness Act). The last serious attempt was in 1993 and it found no support with the democratic majority in Congress or Clinton's White House.


As briefly touched on in the article, public land grazing keeps private ranchland open and undeveloped. The grazing helps slow down urban sprawl in the Sierra foothills. If a few cattle in the highcountry means the lower elevation private lands stay undeveloped, then I consider that a small price to pay. The tradeoffs are worth it to me.
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