Reducing the impact of summer cattle grazing on water quality in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California: a proposal

J Water Health. 2010 Jun;8(2):326-33. doi: 10.2166/wh.2009.171. Epub 2009 Nov 9.


The Sierra Nevada Mountain range serves as an important source of drinking water for the State of California. However, summer cattle grazing on federal lands affects the overall water quality yield from this essential watershed as cattle manure is washed into the lakes and streams or directly deposited into these bodies of water. This organic pollution introduces harmful microorganisms and also provides nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus which increase algae growth causing eutrophication of otherwise naturally oligotrophic mountain lakes and streams. Disinfection and filtration of this water by municipal water districts after it flows downstream will become increasingly costly. This will be compounded by increasing surface water temperatures and the potential for toxins release by cyanobacteria blooms. With increasing demands for clean water for a state population approaching 40 million, steps need to be implemented to mitigate the impact of cattle on the Sierra Nevada watershed. Compared to lower elevations, high elevation grazing has the greatest impact on the watershed because of fragile unforgiving ecosystems. The societal costs from non-point pollution exceed the benefit achieved through grazing of relatively few cattle at the higher elevations. We propose limiting summer cattle grazing on public lands to lower elevations, with a final goal of allowing summer grazing on public lands only below 1,500 m elevation in the Central and Northern Sierra and 2,000 m elevation in the Southern Sierra.

MeSH terms

  • Animal Husbandry*
  • Animals
  • California
  • Campylobacter / isolation & purification
  • Cattle
  • Climate Change
  • Enterobacteriaceae / isolation & purification
  • Eutrophication
  • Fresh Water / microbiology*
  • Giardia / isolation & purification
  • Humans
  • Water Supply / standards*