June 20, 2001

by Jill Kramer

Terry Sawyer grows oysters in paradise.  Every day, he marvels at the beauty of Tomales Bay, the craggy bluffs above, the wooded slopes, the cow-studded grasslands, the serpentine creek that slithers through the mudflat.  It’s a warm June morning and Sawyer smiles as he looks around.  But the bay waters that feed his shellfish and sparkle today under the bright sun could be tainted at any time.  A neighbor’s old septic system can leak.  A careless boater might dump wastewater.  Come winter, the creeks will swell and carry silt and manure from the dairies down to the bay.

Sawyer and his neighbors are bound together by the bay, any one of them able to upset the fragile ecosystem and the lives of all the others. “Everybody out here is trying to live together,” he says, gazing out at the water.  “We’re looking at Tomales Bay, which everybody out here ultimately cares about.  Everybody’s affected by it and everybody affects it. A lot of times there are problems and, just like in a family, you get people that are just going to get mad at each other for awhile.”

The common goal is to keep the bay healthy in ways that are affordable and doable for everybody.  To that end, several groups have sprung up over the years, and many of the locals belong to one or more of them.  The two most recently formed groups are the Tomales Bay Watershed Council and the Septic Policy and Technical Advisory Committee [SepTAC].  Both of these count among their members ranchers, residents, environmentalists and local business owners.  It’s a bit like a bunch of coyotes, foxes, rabbits and sheep conferring on rules of the range.  Their willingness to come together at all is a miracle of cooperation.

One event that forced the locals into action was a viral outbreak three years ago.  Tomales bay oysters were contaminated and 171 people got sick after eating them.  The source of the contamination was never identified, but blame was spread faster and more widely than the virus itself.  Although it was a human pathogen, even the dairy operations came under increased scrutiny.  Residential septic tanks were suspect, but no leaks were found.  The culprit might have been a beachgoer or a boater, even an oyster worker.  The state department of health services declared the bay ‘impaired.’  In 2000, a grand jury report took the county to task for not enforcing its own standards on existing septic systems.

The homeowners who live along the east shore of the bay were suddenly under pressure to improve their septic systems.  Many of the homes had been built as summer cabins, with waste disposal designed for light, occasional use.  Now those systems are not only aging, they’re being used full-time by year-round residents.  What’s more, the homes are situated right on the bay.  County regulations call for septic systems to be set back from the water by 100 feet.  “Most people can’t put their septics 100 feet back,” says homeowner Paul Elmore.  “They’ve got no place to go!  They don’t have land behind them.”

Elmore’s property does extend up the hill behind the house, but it would be expensive for him to have to pump his wastewater up there – as much as $60,000, he thinks, for the kind of system that would satisfy county code.  He’s hoping that SepTAC will come up with some more affordable alternatives.  Meanwhile, he keeps his waste in a holding tank and pays $200 every five or six weeks to get it pumped out.

Elmore grew up in Petaluma, where his father worked as a pharmacist.  He was 16 when his dad built the Tomales Bay house in 1950, for the family to enjoy on weekends and summers. The terrace outside the front room is directly above the seawall that holds the bay away from the house.  Elmore built the seawall when he was 19, but he didn’t live in the house full-time until four years ago when, he says, “I either had to burn it down for the insurance or put some money in it.”

Elmore chairs a coalition of homeowners, ranchers and other business people in the Marshall area.  They’re considering setting up their own septic district so they can police themselves. “A lot of people out here don’t like government.  They don’t like regulation,” he says.  And they’ve banded together in defense of a common enemy.  “We’ve been accused, ever since the outbreak of disease out here, of polluting the bay.  There’s no empirical evidence of that.  They sampled all the way up the bay and they found no higher levels of e. coli off the residences than anyplace else.  But we still get accused.”  The accusers, he says, are the environmentalists – “those schmucks down in Point Reyes Station.” 

The way Elmore sees it, the yuppie-environmentalists are in league with the oyster growers, two groups of interlopers threatening the established rustic lifestyle of the long-time residents.  They demand ironclad wastewater systems from not only the homeowners, but from the dairies as well – the ranches that are embraced by the homeowners as their hedge against development. “If they keep insisting that the bay be ‘cleaned up,’ including runoff from dairy operations, they’ll drive those people out of business.”

The truth is, the ranches are prized by the environmentalists, too, for the same reason the homeowners like them: the cattle, they say, keep the condos away.  Some thirty years ago, environmental groups joined forces with ranchers to establish agricultural zoning throughout West Marin.  Developers have challenged it in court, but so far, the zoning has held fast.  Unfortunately, zoning alone can’t ensure the future of agriculture in Marin.  In the last 30 years, the number of dairies in the county has dwindled from 100 to 31.  Of the 14 that were left in the Tomales Bay watershed, four more closed last year.  The cost of doing business is too high – and meeting environmental regulations is one of those costs.  Families that have profited from dairying for generations are finding they can no longer make a living.

“Our herds are fairly small compared to the setups in the San Joaquin Valley, where probably 85% of the milk is produced in the state today.  And that’s where most of the feed supplies are,” says dairyman Bob Giacomini, a member of the watershed council.  “You might have a son considering going into the dairy operation, but to get up to [environmental] standards, they’ve got to spend all this money.  And then on top of all that they look at the regulations that we might have coming down the road in the next few years and they say, it’s just not worth it.  There are some parts of the country that have more stringent regulations than we have here right now.  And they could be here in the not too distant future.”

Giacomini has been adopting new methods of minimizing waste runoff since the 1970s.  About ten years ago, he started using a piece of equipment that injects the seed into the ground and eliminates the need for plowing.  “Anytime you plow, you have a certain amount of silt that will run off in the winter,” he says.  He’s also switched to more absorbent silage crops.  And in the last year and a half, he’s been trying out another device that pokes holes in the ground to allow the manure to penetrate more.  “We’re able to put enough manure out so we don’t have to use commercial fertilizer now.  The more manure we can hold in the ground, the less will get in the bay.  It’s a benefit to us and benefit to the bay.”

Giacomini has also reduced his runoff by reducing his herd and replacing the milk income with a cheese operation.  “Some people, to increase the cash flow, they just add more cows,” he says.  “That’s the last thing I would do here.  By adding a cheese plant, we hope we can make up the cash flow we would lose by milking less cows.  We have sold 40% of our cows, which helps our wastewater situation.”

While Giacomini’s dairy has stayed profitable through innovation, others have a harder time just because of their location.  “Practically all the dairies were put in place way back in the 1800s, before we had electricity.  So they were almost all put in canyons so they could get gravity flow from springs,” he explains.  “Back then, to get rid of the manure, they’d just push it down the creek.  But today, those dairies are in the worst spots for controlling the manure.  It’s much more expensive to control it than if you were on a flat piece of land.”

Oyster growers like Sawyer don’t want to see any more dairies fail, but they think some ranchers are not as conscientious as they could be.  “Buffer zones should be maintained for all of the creeks.  There should be fencing keeping the animals out of the creeks.  Runoff should be minimized from pastures and milking barns,” says Sawyer.  “A lot of times they spread manure right before a rainfall.  There’s not enough time for the manure to break down.  Then you get fecal loading that goes directly into the creek and it can really have a significant impact on the water quality.  The coliform levels get so high that it’s not safe for human consumption.  I can’t produce food from water that does not meet FDA standards.”   Every time a half-inch of rain falls within 24 hours, the bay is closed down for four to six days and shellfish growers can’t harvest.  Sawyer says, on average, he’s prevented from harvesting 75-100 days out of the year.

Since founding Hog Island Oyster Company in 1984, Sawyer and his partners have worked hard to establish a brand-name reputation for their product. Upscale restaurants proudly list Hog Island Sweetwaters on their menus.  Tourists and locals alike will pull off Highway One to buy oysters fresh out of the tank, step over to one of the grills, fire it up and barbecue those puppies on the spot.

Part of the Hog Island reputation depends on the purity of the bay, in reality and in perception.  So Sawyer see every insult to the bay as potentially damaging to his business, and he worries about waste from all sources – even tourists. “We have full public access to the bay, but there’s no place where people can go to the bathroom,” says Sawyer.  “We have all these people coming out to enjoy the beauty here and every public facility or restaurant basically says, ‘no, you can’t use my bathroom unless you’re a customer.’  Well, guess what?  They’re using every single tree.  I look outside my office and there’s a bicyclist taking a leak by my water system.”

One of the largest concentrations of tourists is up at the north end of Tomales Bay – Lawson’s Landing, in Dillon Beach.  On holiday weekends, the campground is packed with 1000 RVs.  Most of the visitors are regulars who have driven down from the Sacramento Valley with their families for years.  There are 233 trailers parked there permanently; their owners come for weekends and vacations, to fish for salmon and halibut, to go clamming or crabbing, or just party with their friends.

Bill Vogler used to be one of the Sacramento Valley regulars.  He started working at the campground when he was 16, then fell in love with the boss’s daughter.  He married her while he was in the service, home on leave from a Navy gunboat anchored off the coast of Vietnam.  The property, which sprawls over 980 acres, has been in the Lawson family for five generations.  Most of it is grazing land – originally a dairy, it’s now a beef ranch.  Vogler’s father-in-law started the campground in 1957.  There’s also a sand quarry, a hauling business and a boat repair operation. 

Vogler has been running the campground without a use permit for years.  Old Lawson originally drew up a master plan for the place, but it was never approved by the county.  Vogler claims to be less of a hothead than his father-in-law, but he’s yet to come up with a proposal that he and the county can live with.  “We’ve been working on a master plan with the county for the last 15 years, on and off,” he says.  “Every time we get close there’s another big roadblock and it all gets thrown down the tubes.”

Vogler swears he doesn’t want to expand.  He’s only asking for approval for his present capacity and permission to make some improvements – a few additional toilets to replace the green port-a-potties scattered around the campground, some showers and a sewer system.  After the viral outbreak, a sample of bay water off Lawson’s Landing showed a higher level of fecal coliform than anywhere else, although well within safety guidelines.  Vogler chalked it up to bird poop. 

One recent chilly afternoon, a thin layer of clouds spreading across the sky like spilled milk, Vogler takes a visitor on a tour around his campground.  Weatherbeaten trailers, most of them unoccupied, are parked side-by-side along the gravel-and-dirt roads that cover the point of land where Bodega Bay meets Tomales Bay, directly across from the northern tip of the Point Reyes Peninsula.  A string of dunes separates the trailers from the beach on the west side.  On the inland side is what Vogler calls the “meadow” – environmentalists call it a drained wetland.  On busy weekends, it, too, is packed with trailers and mobile homes.  Beyond the meadow, more dunes.

This is where Vogler wants to put a leachfield for his sewer system.   The plan enrages environmentalists.  These are prized ancient sand dunes, created during the last Ice Age.  While most California dunes have been taken over by European grasses, these are some of the last remaining habitats for a number of native, endangered plants.  Other dunes in the complex are completely free of vegetation.  “These are ‘mobile’ dunes, which are increasingly rare. They look like something out of Lawrence of Arabia,” says Environmental Action Committee’s Catherine Caufield, a member of SepTAC.  “It’s an amazing spot. There’s an incredibly rich diversity in one compact area –-  the mobile dunes, the central dune scrub, the dune grasslands, the dune wetlands.  There are more than 40 species of waterfowl there.”

Caufield and other environmentalists say that Vogler’s plan would kill the mobile dunes, endanger the native plants and contaminate the groundwater that seeps into the bay.  They also worry that he plans to bring in even more campers – and they’d like to see him cut back.  “There may be a cost to reducing the intensity of use there,” says Caufield, “but I don’t think the environment should take it on the chin.”

Vogler considers himself an environmentalist.  He’s a dues-paying member of the Environmental Action Committee, but he stopped going to meetings since Caufield took over and the two locked horns.  “I don’t want more camp area, I don’t want more permanent trailers, I don’t want to change things,” he says.  “The only reason we’re doing this is to become a little bit more environmentally sound. We’ve tried to take care of the bay.  We’ve run clam boats since 1957, but we quit that three years ago because there were too many people.  So we stopped.  Nobody told us we had to.  We saw there was a problem so we stopped.  We want to see the bay clean and usable for everybody.”

That’s what everybody out here wants.  A clean Tomales Bay keeps visitors coming to the campground; it lures tourists to the boat rentals, restaurants and lodges; it ensures customers for local dairy products and shellfish; and it delights the homeowners who live along its shores.  Their common love of the bay is what keeps them coming to the watershed council, to SepTAC and to various other meetings, trying to work out their differences.  “When there is somebody that’s doing something wrong, there’s a whole process that goes on,” says Terry Sawyer.  “First they say, no I’m not doing it and then they’ll go, okay, I need to do something about it, and then, what do I do? Hopefully, that’ll be where we’re going to go with everyone.”