Fecal bacteria poisons Point Reyes beaches
Illustration of bacteria cells (Shutterstock)

On any given summer day, scores of families gambol and picnic on the shores of Abbotts Lagoon and Kehoe Lagoon at Point Reyes National Seashore. The stream-fed waters are warmer than the Pacific Ocean into which they periodically drain, beckoning waders and swimmers, toddlers and adults alike.

But humans are not the only life forms splashing in the pools.

It turns out that microscopic fecal bacteria known as E. coli are at home in the brackish waters. And they just live to burrow deep into mammalian guts, cow, elk, or human. It's dark and warm there, steaming with delicious foods, and an exit for traveling E. coli cells surfing waves of gaseous excrement in search of new guts to inhabit.

Don't get it wrong; most of the 100 trillion bacteria thriving inside your stomach and intestines are essential and benign, serving useful digestive, disease-fighting, and even cognitive purposes. But strains of E. coli can cause meningitis, septicemia, urinary tract and intestinal infections, diarrhea, pneumonia and respiratory illness.

E. coli can be fatal to children and the elderly and those with weakened immunological systems, including bodies traumatized by Covid-19. You really do not want to wade in waters where it waits.

Consequently, state and federal regulatory agencies have developed complicated formulas to measure the safe amount of fecal bacteria allowed in swimmable waters. In a January test of the water in Abbotts Lagoon by an aquatic toxicology laboratory hired by environmentalists, the number of E. coli cells found in water samples was twenty times the safe amount.

At Kehoe Lagoon, the safety margin was exceeded by a factor of 40. It gets worse for E. coli's nasty bacterial cousin known as Enterococcus. It can devour your heart, stomach, brain, and spinal cord. This monster thrives in raw sewage and intestines. Abbotts Lagoon contains 60 times the safe number of Enterococcus, which is resistant to antibiotics.

And Kehoe Lagoon seethes with 300 times the acceptable amount of this voracious creature. That is not a typo: Enterococcus is three hundred times more prevalent than the maximum safety level.

Gee, you'd think the Park Service would put up a few warning signs.

But, no, there are zero signs cautioning those who touch these waters that a drop can wound and kill. There are no Park Service info signs indicating that swarms of the dangerous bacteria emanate from the 130 million pounds of poop and urine excreted annually in the park by thousands of privately-owned dairy cows and cattle. No FAQs on the Park's website acknowledging that manure-dropping bovines roam barbed-wire fenced pastures inside leased ranches riven by cow-polluted streams running into the lagoons, Tomales Bay, and the Pacific.

A 2013 study by U.S. Department of Interior scientists determined that California's highest reported E. coli levels occurred in wetlands and creeks draining Point Reyes cattle ranches near Kehoe Beach, Drake's Bay, Abbotts Lagoon and Tomales Bay. The report determined, "Drakes Bay watersheds and Kehoe and Abbotts Lagoon periodically exhibit high bacterial counts affecting human uses including swimming and shellfish harvesting."

Many public records show that Park Service administrators and the California Regional Water Quality Control Board have long known that astronomically high levels of gut-wrenching microorganisms flow directly from the effluvia emitted by livestock into the Park's recreational and fishing waters.

And these agencies have done nothing to effectively eliminate the source of the potentially lethal bacterial invasions. Recently-appointed Park Superintendent Craig Kenkel told the Pacific Sun that the January test of fecal bacteria levels is accurate and consistent with the 2013 findings. He said that the Park Service has historically addressed the pollution problem with "livestock exclusion fencing, erosion control, livestock water supply, and stock pond restoration," and that those measures will continue.

But Kenkel's explanation begs the question: If these supposedly preventative measures have been implemented for decades, then why has fecal pollution persisted at such unacceptable levels? Clearly, the measures are ineffective.

In 2020, the Park Service released an Environmental Impact Statement which concluded that it is an environmentally sound policy to continue dairy and cattle ranching inside the ocean side park in perpetuity. The report states that the Park Service will continue to monitor water quality and to work with ranchers to alleviate pollution. But it was under Park Service oversight of the ranchers for the last half century that the fecal bacteria were allowed to colonize the waters.

Dodging responsibility for cleaning up the pollution, the Park Service and the state water board have granted pollution "waivers" to the politically powerful ranchers, allowing the problem to metastasize year after year. Logically, there is no practical solution at hand, but to remove the cows. Or to follow them around and bag their poop, which is not likely.

Environmentalists to the rescue

In the absence of regular testing and effective oversight of water pollution at Point Reyes by the Park Service, two national environmental groups—Western Watershed Project and In Defense of Animals—commissioned the January test of aquatic toxicology levels. The field test was conducted in the Park after a brief rain by Douglas Lovell, a state certified environmental engineer. The samples were analyzed by McCampbell Analytical Inc. of Pittsburgh, California.

The lab results, although astonishingly high and dangerous, are probably lower than they would be in a non-drought year. The toxicology report concluded:

• "Bacteria contamination of surface water significantly exceeds applicable water quality criteria despite the reported implementation of cattle waste management actions."

• "Imminent human health risks exist regarding exposure to bacterial contamination in surface water, particularly for locations with documented or likely direct water contact."

• "Reductions in the localized abundance of cattle waste will likely be necessary to adequately protect surface water quality."

Of course, it is not only humans whose lives are endangered by the fecal materials flowing into streams and pools and the Pacific Ocean. At risk are endangered Coho salmon and California red-legged frogs and orca, blue whales, gray whales, northern elephant seals, Steller sea lions, Southern sea otters, Western snowy plovers, brown pelicans, steelhead trout, tidewater goby, black abalone, and many other species, according to concerned scientists.

Environmentalists are urging the California Coastal Commission to address the pollution issue as it proceeds to rule in April on whether to accept or reject the water safety elements in the Park Service's plan to permanently continue dairy and cattle ranching at Point Reyes National Seashore.

Congressperson Jared Huffman, whose district includes Marin County and the entire North Coast, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.