Successful sign-ups for stream fencing leave Virginia looking for funds
The focus among conservationists in Virginia is shifting from getting the word out about the full funding that’s available for two years to fence livestock out of streams to ensuring that money is availabe to follow through on the promise.
Jack Frye, Virginia director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, said that was one of the takeaways from a meeting that got stakeholders together last month to discuss the stream exclusion program and provide examples to farmers still considering enrollment.
The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation has pledged that landowners who sign up for the program to keep animals out of waterways during fiscal years 2014 and 2015 would have 100 percent of their costs covered.
But Soil and Water Conservation Districts were quickly overwhelmed with demand. By the time the first fiscal year ended on June 30, they had only been promoting the program for about seven months yet garnered about $13 million worth of sign-ups for the SL-6 practice, as it is called.
Some funding was available to begin building those fences, but about $9 million worth of projects was rolled into the new fiscal year with no funding set aside to pay for them.
“There’s another full year to go, and people are still rolling in the door,” Frye said.
DCR officials at the stakeholder event were hesitant to guess what the total cost might be once the two-year sign-up period expires on June 30, 2015.
Meanwhile, the limited-time program has garnered an incredible amount of buzz in the state.
Both the cattlemen’s and dairymen’s associations in the state have passed resolutions (as far back as 2007) noting the benefits to the farm operation of excluding cattle from waterways. And they’ve ramped up their efforts to spread the word about this unique opportunity to use state and federal funding to add the fences.
It’s just not clear how the state will be able to fund its commitment to these landowners who are willing to participate.
Virginia Del. Scott Lingamfelter told meeting participants about the funding challenges that the success of this program presents to the state legislature. Revenue for the next year is coming in under projection, he said, and it’s unlikely that excess funds that have been funneled toward conservation programs in the past will be available this coming year.
The fencing program is an important part of the state’s Watershed Implementation Plan to achieve Bay cleanup goals. The plan calls for 95 percent of livestock to be excluded from streams by 2025, “but we don’t really know where we are” with that goal, Frye said.
Based on conversations with officials from Soil and Water Conservation Districts across the Bay watershed, Frye estimates that about 25 percent of livestock has been fenced out of streams since the mid-1990s.
“So 75 percent of people have livestock watering in streams still,” he said.
Based on anecdotal information from conservation districts, Frye estimated the state has spent about $70 million on programs to keep livestock out of streams since the mid-1990s.
He is working with Virginia Tech to consider a data collection program to help better monitor progress and better estimate the cost of meeting the stream exclusion goal.
“We don’t really know where we are and, therefore, irrespective of how many people have come in and signed up…we don’t know” how much it will cost to achieve the watershed plan goal, he said.
Also at the July 18 meeting, Dr. Justin Hill, a large animal veterinarian in the Shenandoah Valley, told participants that livestock exclusion not only prevents cows from contributing to, and drinking, polluted water but also prevents a range of diseases. He said access to polluted water has been linked to mastitis in dairy cattle and to a lack of milk production.
Frye said the meeting highlighted the multiple state and federal programs that can defray the costs for landowners and farmers who want to implement conservation practices beyond stream fencing.
“We made sure it was clear that, between Virginia and the federal government…we would try to help them get it done,” he said, noting that landowners who participate in the stream fencing program are responsible to maintain the fences for 10 years.