California Equestrian Facilities Reeling from CAFO Designation

Del Mar Horsepark Abruptly Closes and is on “Pause”

In December 2020, the 22nd District Agricultural Association (DAA) abruptly canceled all 2021 shows and boarding arrangements. Furthermore, they gave boarders and trainers 90 days to find other boarding arrangements. There was no warning given to any in the equestrian community and rumors were flying as to why this happened.

The 22nd DAA oversees the state-owned Del Mar Fairgrounds, home of the Del Mar National Horse Show and San Diego County Fair, the Del Mar Racetrack built in 1936, as well as other events. The DAA also oversees the Horsepark. Unlike most other government agencies, the 22nd District Agricultural Association is funded almost entirely by revenue from the events held there. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the suspension of all mass gatherings this year, it also switched off about 90 percent of the annual revenue for the fairgrounds.

Del Mar Thoroughbred Club was able to hold their summer and fall meets without spectators, and the Horsepark had exhibitor-only shows that generated about $1.3 million dollars, but that was a drop in the bucket.

Theories Abound Regarding “Pause”

With no information being pushed out, the conspiracy theories were rampant. First there were theories that both the Fairgrounds and the Horsepark would be used to house the homeless. There are dormitory style buildings on the Fairgrounds where the grooms live during racing season; however, that would only work when the Del Mar racing meet isn’t scheduled.

The second theory was to fulfill the requirement that California requires every city to have a percentage of very low to low income housing. Del Mar is required to provide units to fulfill that regulation. Finding affordable housing to fill the requirement for very low to low income housing is difficult in most California cities and in Del Mar it is exceptionally difficult. It is located on a beautiful stretch of California Coastline and the city itself only comprises of 1.8 square miles with a population of 4300. The median income is $107,000 and housing is at a premium in Del Mar.

Some suggestions to solve the housing issue in Del Mar were to put low-income housing on the western edge of the Fairgrounds or to purchase vacant properties and build 1-4 unit homes. Some believed that the Horsepark itself might be sold to a developer for low income housing. This seems unlikely since the Horsepark is in the middle of the San Dieguito River Valley, a natural flood plain that opens to the ocean two miles away.

Water Quality

More significant to the Horsepark’s closure is a requirement by the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board that the Fairgrounds curtail groundwater pollution that can result from boarding, training and showing horses there. With the pandemic shutting down much of the fairground activities, spectator events such as attendance at the horse racing meets, concerts, the county fair, Del Mar National Horse Show, and livestock auctions, there is no revenue to improve the Horsepark property to comply with the requirements, 22nd DAA Board President Richard Valdez said in an email.

According to a San Diego Union-Tribune article dated January 10, 2021, and titled “Equestrian activities suspended because of water quality issues”, advocates working to keep Horsepark open for shows, activities and the public riding school released a report on January 8th that indicated the water issues originated outside the property.

A recently completed two-year, $15 million water quality project at the 340 acre fairgrounds included the capture of stormwater from areas of the Fairgrounds where animals are housed and treatment of that stormwater to appropriate levels before being discharged into adjacent waterways. It also included converting the Del Mar Racetrack infield water features into holding ponds for stormwater, constructing a wetlands area, and building a treatment plant that will remove pollutants from stormwater before it leaves the Fairgrounds.

Water Quality Issues – Looks Like It is the People, Not the Horses

A group called Friends of Del Mar Horsepark contracted with testing lab ALS Group USA Corp., located in neighboring Orange County, who examined water samples taken during seasonal rains on December 28, 2020 both upstream and downstream from the Horsepark. The upstream samples showed significantly higher amounts of coliforms, bacterial pollutants that come from both human and animal waste. Carla Echols-Hayes, an advocate for the Horsepark and resident of nearby Solana Beach stated, “The results indicate that the horse park is not the source of any additional contaminants to the San Dieguito River Valley waterways.”

Test results were also taken at a third site, a storm drain along the main street outside and to the southwest of the Horsepark on a slope below a residential neighborhood, showing the highest total coliform bacteria. Echols-Hayes stated “if there’s a pollution source, it’s not the horses, it’s the people.” The results are as follows:

  • Water test results during the recent rainstorm on Dec. 28th indicate that Del Mar Horsepark is not contributing to water quality issues in the San Dieguito River Valley. In fact, the source of pollutants are properties further upstream to the East of the Horsepark and the hillside above that flow onto the property from the storm drain on Via de la Valle as shown below:
    • Upstream test site: On the eastern border of Horsepark and west of El Camino Real under the road bridge. Total Coliform bacteria count was 1990.
    • Downstream test site: On the western border of Horsepark at the boundary between Horsepark and the San Dieguito River Conservancy. Total Coliform bacteria count was 79.
    • Storm drain test site: Across the street from Horsepark on Via de la Valle where there is a storm drain and basin below the roadway. Total coliform bacteria count was 2420.

As encouraging as the test results were, there are other substances that must be tested for. Fairgrounds officials said the last water test results were “promising,” but that more tests are needed. Also, samples must be taken and tested within a few hours of rainfall. From an article in the San Diego Union-Tribune dated January 18, 2021:
“Many more (water) discharges would have to be tested, and each one tested for more substances such as … dissolved copper and zinc,” said Ian Adam, an engineering consultant for the fairgrounds. “It is considered processed wastewater, not stormwater, and processed wastewater is not allowed to discharge to the creek.”

Environmental Issues Appear to Be at the Root

It comes as no surprise that environmental issues appear to be the issue, not just water quality. Del Mar Horsepark sits on a 100-year flood plain in the San Dieguito River Valley, next to an environmentally sensitive area adjacent to the San Dieguito River. California has long been known to be tough on environmental issues. There are environmental NGO’s that constantly watch the coastal waters including the Coastkeeper Alliance’s various county chapters and the Surfrider Foundation among others.

Equestrian Facilities are Considered CAFOs in California

When we think of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFO’s, we don’t usually think of horse boarding facilities, but rather finishing yards for cattle, and poultry and swine farms. It may surprise you that according to California regulations some of the largest CAFO’s are racetracks.

So how does a horse boarding facility qualify as a CAFO? First, it must be defined as an animal feeding operation or AFO based on the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) regulations. The definition of an AFO is an operation where animals have been, or will be stabled or confined and fed or maintained for a total of 45 days or more in any 12-month period.

California has approximately 2,200 dairies with an average size of about 700 milk cows. There are also several hundred finishing yards, poultry operations, and other animal feeding operations (AFO’s) in the state. California regulations refer to these operations, including CAFO’s as “confined animal facilities” (CAF’s). The State Water Resources Control Board and nine Regional Water Quality Boards protect water quality in California by regulating wastes, including manure at CAFs. Each regional board develops the regulatory program it uses for CAFs. Most commercial CAFs are in the Central Valley Region including over 80% of the dairies in the state.

The San Diego Region covers the southern Orange County cities of Mission Viejo southward into San Diego County and ending at the Mexican border. Some equestrian facilities in Orange County were sued for environmental violations and all fall under the San Diego Regional Water Board District. (See Map)

Concentrated Horse Feeding Operations

A NPDES published fact sheet from 1997 describes Concentrated Horse Feeding Operations and provides this definition: “A facility is considered to be an animal feeding operation if it stables, confines, feeds, or maintains animals for a total of 45 days or more in any 12-month period and does not sustain crops, vegetation, forage growth, or post-harvested residues in the normal growing season over any portion of the facility. Horse feeding operations are considered to be CAFOs if they meet these two criteria and, in addition, house more than 500 horses.”

“Smaller horse feeding operations are considered to be CAFOs if they contain more than 150 horses, AND discharge their wastes into the waters of the US through man-made ditches, flushing systems, or similar devices OR discharge their wastes directly into US waters that originate outside the facility and pass over, across, around, or through the facility, or otherwise come into contact with the animals confined. Areas of the CAFO may include watering systems; washing, cleaning, or flushing pens, and manure stacks or pits.”

The Closure of the Del Mar Horsepark May Only Be the Beginning

Blenheim EquiSports President, Robert Ridland, offered this perspective in The West Equestrian article from December 21, 2020 regarding the closure of the Del Mar Horsepark:
“Finally, there is our collective responsibility for enhanced environmental compliance, which gets back to what was mentioned at the outset…that what happened last week was, in many ways, predictable. As everybody knows, Blenheim EquiSports held hundreds of events at the Del Mar Horsepark over the past couple decades, and the loss of that facility to our sport is gut-wrenching for us all.

What many people are probably unaware of however, is that horse show facilities now fall under the CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) governmental regulations that mandate an extensive infrastructure investment. It was in fact, a consequence of the impending CAFO restrictions that forced Blenheim to relocate several of our shows from Del Mar to San Juan Capistrano this summer.

This brings me to my last point…The loss of Del Mar Horsepark unfortunately may only be the beginning. As many of you are aware, we have been involved in the design process for CAFO-compliant infrastructure improvements to the Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park for some time now. The architectural renderings which many of you have already seen (particularly if you’ve walked by Hillary’s tack room at the shows) reflect what our “dream” facility could look like if we all pitch in and help out.”

Environmental NGO’s Busy Filing Lawsuits

Just up the road in neighboring in Orange County, lawsuits have been filed against equestrian facilities. Many of these facilities have settled the lawsuits which have brought large awards to those NGO’s, and are causing cities to sue the facilities themselves. Even though these stables are in Orange County, they fall into the San Diego Regional Water Board jurisdiction.

Rancho Sierra Vista
Rancho Sierra Vista, located in San Juan Capistrano, California was sued by Orange County Coastkeeper in October 2020. Orange County Coastkeeper alleged that Rancho Sierra Vista is violating the federal Clean Water Act (CWA) because it didn’t obtain a permit for pollution discharge as a medium-sized Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO). The CAFO permit the facility allegedly needs would require monitoring, recordkeeping and reporting. The complaint alleged that the facility discharged manure, bedding, trash, footing, fertilizers and polluted stormwater into neighboring Trabuco Creek and other federal waters. Rancho Sierra Vista entered into a Consent Decree with Orange County Coastkeeper on January 5, 2021. The financial terms of the Consent Decree are as follows:

  • Future Monitoring of Rancho Sierra Vista’s compliance with regulations $15,000
  • $500 for each failure to comply
  • Mitigation of alleged environmental harm $10,000 initially paid to Mission Viejo Hydrologic Area, then $20,000 1 year from the effective date
  • Reimbursement of Attorneys’ fees and costs $80,000.

The entire Consent Decree can be found here

Sycamore Trail Stables
Right next door to Rancho Sierra Vista sits Sycamore Trail Stables. They were also sued by Orange County Coastkeepers for violations of the Clean Water Act in April 2020. They settled and entered into a consent decree in October 2020. The cost to Sycamore stables:

  • $20,000 to defray Coastkeeper’s future monitoring of Sycamores compliance
  • If by June 1, 2021 Sycamore hasn’t given their notice of their intent to cease equine or other animal operations, they are to pay an additional $10,000 to Coastkeeper’s for continued monitoring and oversight for the life of this Consent Decree
  • During the life of the Consent Decree, in any reporting year, Sycamore agrees to defray the cost of Coastkeeper’s additional costs with a review payment of $3,500
  • Stipulated payments of $500 for each failure to comply with any deadlines.
  • Remediation payments of $30,000 to the Mission Viejo Hydrologic Area
  • Attorney fees and costs totaling $75,000

The entire Consent Decree can be found here

Serrano Creek Stables
Serrano Creek Stables in nearby Lake Forest, California was also sued by Orange County Coastkeeper in 2019, for “allowing unmitigated runoff of manure into the creek during storm events.” This can be found on the Orange County Coastkeeper website: Since the suit was filed the city of Lake Forest has settled with Coastkeepers as well:

  • Legal Fees and Costs: $135,000
  • Compliance Monitoring and Oversight: $60,000
  • Environmental Mitigation Project- $20,000 to Orange County Conservation Corps for labor and equipment;
  • Up to $20,000 for actual costs of a biologist, permitting fees, access and other project-related costs.

Settlement Agreement can be found here

Rancho Mission Viejo/Blenheim Facility Management (BFM)
The City of San Juan Capistrano, owners of Rancho Mission Viejo and Blenheim Facility Management, were sued by Orange County Coastkeeper in July 2017 for contributing to pollution in San Juan Creek. Orange County Coastkeeper alleged that the city and BFM illegally discharged “storm water and non-storm water into San Juan Creek without a proper permit.” The City of San Juan Capistrano settled the lawsuit to “avoid costs and uncertainties of future litigation.”
As part of the settlement, the city will:

  • “…fund $1 million in projects through the California State Parks Foundation that will benefit the San Juan Creek watershed.”
  • In addition, San Juan Capistrano will “Pay Coastkeeper $1.9 million for its expert and attorney’s fees related to the lawsuit and future monitoring expenses.”

In June of 2019, an article in the Capistrano Dispatch stated that compliance with the settlement agreement Rancho Mission Viejo/San Juan Capistrano/Blenheim Facility Management entered into with Orange County Coastkeeper would cost the city nearly $8.5 million in upgrades to the facility and Eastern Open Space. The breakdown includes approximately $6.14 million towards a stormwater treatment system at the park which is considered a large “concentrated animal feeding operation.” The article can be found here:

In the Interim

As stated previously, the 22nd DAA funds the DelMar fairgrounds and Del Mar Horsepark infrastructure and repairs with the revenue it makes from holding various events at the venues. The Horsepark will move some of its 31 shows that were scheduled for 2021 to the fairgrounds, but the fairgrounds does not have the caliber of facilities that Horsepark has. There are no dressage courts and no turf courses designed for jumping. The fairgrounds also hosts the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club’s summer and fall meets which effectively take up all stabling and temporary housing.
Due to COVID, the 22nd DAA lost approximately 90% of its normal operating budget. There is no money to pay for the upgrades they believe they must make at the Horsepark to prevent litigation from various environmental groups to fulfill its designation as a potentially large CAFO (500+ horses), and definitely a medium CAFO (150-499) horses. According to the DAA, the estimated cost for mitigation projects are around $8 million.

The Horsepark currently has the blessing of the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, a state agency, to conduct activities from which animal manure runoff risks contaminating waterways and groundwater. The Fairgrounds are enrolled under a Water Board policy known as “Waiver No. 6 – Discharges from Animal Operations,” which sets forth requirements to mitigate such runoff — for example, measures to collect, store and dispose of manure off-site.

The Fairgrounds already implement such measures and has made some, though not all, related facility and infrastructure improvements.
“The facility (Horsepark) and its operation continue to comply with the specific conditions and discharge specifications of Waiver No. 6,” the Water Board told The Coast News in a statement January 7, 2021. “Specific waste handling practices (e.g., regular sweeping of elevated and covered stalls and pick up of manure, hay/straw; wash racks are plumbed to sewer and covered; storage areas are bermed) remain in place to ensure that stormwater runoff is not polluted.”

Sewer system of the DelMar Horsepark is shown in red.


Additional capital improvements were originally scheduled through 2021, according to the Fairgrounds’ 2019 waiver application. Specifically, elevating manure storage bins on concrete pads which would “provide secondary containment and minimize the possibility of pollutant infiltration into the ground.”

The Del Mar Horsepark does need some improvement to comply with new state water board regulations that were passed in 2015. There are some known issues, like needing concrete bumpers around temporary manure storage areas. The open question is how much will it all cost. The Horsepark already has excellent waste practices; for example, horse manure is regularly trucked out and does not remain on the grounds.

At the January meeting, the 22nd DAA board said remediation would cost up to $8M. This is contrary to the remediation report that Friends of Del Mar Horsepark paid for which estimated the cost at $250,000. Part of the reason for the wide difference in cost is that the 22nd DAA stated it feels the need to adhere to a standard required for much larger facilities than the size of the DelMar Horsepark. Their rationale for wanting to adhere to the larger standard is that the much larger Rancho Mission Viejo facility in Orange County was required to adhere to it in their legal settlement. Again, a rather odd stance to take since no one else has suggested that the Horsepark should be considered a large facility under the CAFO standards.

Bottom Line

22nd DAA board president Richard Valdez made the comment that although they (Del Mar Horsepark) hadn’t received any litigation threats, it was the “possibility” of such a lawsuit from San Diego Coastkeeper and Surfrider Foundation, and other environmental NGO’s, that made the 22nd DAA board decide to cancel all horse activities at the Horsepark for 2021.

It is clear that the lawsuits encountered by the facilities in neighboring Orange County cited above have spooked the 22nd DAA. An author of a January 24, 2021 article in the Rancho Santa Fe Post, stated he spoke with both Coastkeeper and Surfrider regarding their positions on the DelMar Horsepark and neither organization and any plans to pursue litigation. The fact that 22nd DAA is effectively bankrupt might have something to do with that.

Equestrian Activities and the Livestock Industry Must Stand United

All too often we have heard from horse owners that what impacts agriculture and livestock industries will not have an impact on their activities. We can bet that most horse owners in California had no idea that the equestrian facilities they use and enjoy are considered Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and are subject to onerous and expensive regulations set forth upon animal agriculture in the state. The closure of Del Mar and the lawsuits experienced by other equestrian facilities in Southern California prove otherwise. Take note of who actually benefited the most from the lawsuits – the NGOs for their oversight and legal fees. These lawsuits and new, onerous regulations are why it is important for everyone involved in animal activities to support each other, to pay attention and to stand up for all.

Horse Event Venues Are Obviously in The Crosshairs – And a Cash Cow for NGOs

We at Protect The Harvest have been warning the horse community for years that NGOs have horse ownership and activities in their crosshairs. Now more than ever, it is important to stay vigilant of what is happening both with state regulations and activities of environmental and animal extremist NGOs. Even more important is to stand up and support those groups both financially and otherwise that are working to maintain and protect horse ownership and equestrian activities. As always, our organization will continue to follow this story and provide updates.

Related Posts


Want to stay up-to-date on the stories we’re following and see how you can make a difference in the fight to keep our traditions alive?

© 2023 Protect The Harvest. All Rights Reserved

StoryBrand Website design by Results and Co.