Monday, August 19, 2013

Old and New Cow Pies Found Near Elk Creek Intake of Baker City Watershed.

[Edited 8/20&22/13]

Councilors Dennis Dorrah and Clair Button allowed me to go with them on a ground survey of the Elk Creek drainage portion of the Baker City Watershed today. The water supply just above the Elk Creek diversion is where the 913 crypto oocysts turned up in a ten liter sample taken on August 4, 2013. I had wanted to look things over since the water supply intake is very close to a cattle allotment fence on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, and I had raised the idea that, because of that fact, cows had emerged as a suspect in the mystery concerning the source of Baker City's recent Cryptosporidium outbreak. See: New Suspects in Baker City Cryptosporidium Case?

 This cow and her calf were just inside the gate that keeps vehicles out of the watershed, a hundred yards or two from the diversion, but presently outside the rickety old watershed fence. We were told they were not supposed to be in this pasture until September, and even though the permittee fixed a hole in the fence last week three cows and their calves are still here next to the watershed fence.

Cows are a well known carrier of crypto (as opposed to say, ex-Councilor Sam Bass, who is not a known carrier of crypto, despite what you might hear), but as Dennis Dorrah commented to myself and Clair Button today (paraphrasing), the city doesn't seem to be taking cows seriously. Jake Jones, who takes care of the watershed, told us today that 6 cows (3 cow/calf pairs) had been found inside the watershed last week. He said he contacted the rancher who came and retrieved them, and also repaired a hole in the fence. I had been previously assured that cattle entry was infrequent and I believe we were told the same today. I will cover more of this issue later on the blog. 

Councilor Clair Button knows cows. Clair is not just a botanist--in his career job with the BLM he was also called upon at least occasionally to ride herd on ranchers and their cows, which can be a pretty difficult job, given the local politics in cow-raising counties with public land grazing allotments.  I know cows too. I've been  watching them be in the wrong place at the wrong time for 30 some years in my travels throughout the West, and in monitoring grazing damage in western streams.  I spent about ten years nearly alone watching them be in the wrong place at the wrong time over on the Malheur National Forest while I spent my retirement money mostly volunteering by myself and then for the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) on a few different grazing lawsuits whose central issue was grazing damage to public resources. ONDA recently won $1.25 million dollars in fees for a lawsuit that I spent several years of my life working on. I think it is fair to say, that because I did the major portion of the monitoring, data collection, and laborious report making, which was accepted by the courts, that I too, know a bit about grazing. (Don't worry about me getting lifted out of poverty, ONDA hasn't offered me a nickel of the settlement so that I could help continue that work.) Dennis too, has spent his life in Oregon. He knows a cow pie from an apple pie too, and he saw a lot of the former today.  I'm betting you know the difference as well, but does the city staff?  Of course they do!  They know these hills and the watershed better than I do, but politics, denial and job security are powerful forces to be reckoned with.

OK, so we all know something about cows and cow pies, and today we found not just cow pies in the watershed, we found new cow pies and old cow pies--those of recent trespass, and those from last year and perhaps before. 
This photo shows the two Councilors and watershed personnel inspecting the Elkhorn Creek diversion to the Baker City water supply inside the Baker City watershed.  In the foreground are three, possibly cryptosporidium laden, droppings from a recent visit by cows who are not supposed to be in the watershed. The watershed, after all, is protected by an old rickety fence, the rancher/permittee, the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, and city personnel.

A little later, Councilors Dorrah, Button, and I, hiked overland (trail-less) across the diversion and up the steep slopes of the watershed to the west.  They hiked up the steep slopes like a pair of mountain goats, and even though Councilor Dorrah is five years older than I, a few weeks old blister on the ball of my foot got re-aggravated, so I wimped out and returned to where I wanted to be anyway, the area where we had seen the cow sign previously. I was  glad it happened as we were able to document more of the problem area between the two parties. They eventually came back around, after an arduous hike, to the spring we had noticed earlier as we viewed things on the east side from the west side above the creek. When I came back down, I was able to inspect the trails I had seen earlier going up near the east side of Elk Creek.

We all saw limited quantities of elk and deer droppings well dispersed in the watershed and Clair saw fresh elk droppings at "two sedge bog springs very close to the stream that were getting significant elk use, and water from the bogs definitely drained into the stream." Cow pies were seen by Dennis and Clair up the slope below a spring and the road overlooking the diversion, and I found them on the trail near the creek above the diversion. I documented cow pies and cow trails from the area around the diversion on upstream for about 1/4 to 1/3 mile. Cow pies (scat, droppings), most, but not all, from earlier years, were a common sight.

Fairly fresh cow leavings on cow trail heading upstream within the watershed from the area about 50 feet east of the Elk Creek diversion.

As I went up the trail on the east side of Elk Creek I found numerous cow pies, most from previous years but two from the current year.  About 1/4 to 1/3 mile upstream I came to an area that was open to cows that led down to the creek. There was an eroded cow trail evident, and at the bottom were pieces of cow pies from last year or previous, that had washed down within about 15 feet from the creek. I followed and filmed and found this: a washed-out cow pie, probably from last fall,  as well as a companion a few yards north, sitting on the bank just above the creek.
One of the older cow pies found on the trail above the Elk Creek diversion
Lower portion of eroding cow trail leading down to Elk Creek

Cow Pie within high water level of Elk Creek, about 1/4 to 1/3 mile above diversion in watershed. It sits on current bank above Elk Creek. It is the gray blob in the right hand portion of the photo, with Elk Creek flowing just below to the left in photo.  There is another cow pie situated similarly on the bank just above the current flow level of the creek about 3 to 4 feet upstream. This is well within the high water level of the creek and could also be affected by other high precipitation events, such as the one in mid-June, where the possibility exists for runoff into Elk Creek.  Runoff from the many other cow pies noted could also possibly affect crypto levels within this Baker City water supply drainage. [I checked my own records, and there was a significant precipitation event on June 19, followed by others of lesser quantities. A city staff person had mentioned mid-July, but weather service records do not show one occurring then. Edited 8/22/13.]

I will add more information and evidence later, either under this particular blog title, or under a new rewritten blog. 

There is much more to think about concerning our small community's safe water future, not the least of which is the high initial cost and yearly maintenance costs of filtration as opposed to the much lower initial cost and yearly maintenance costs of UV treatment. Also for consideration--are we going to protect our watershed from cows, or are we going to be cowed by powerful interests?

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