Bay Journal

Virginia faulted for handling of cattle pollution in Shenandoah

Environmental group calls for tighter curbs on manure spreading, fencing more animals from water

  • By William H. Funk on April 26, 2017
Cattle stand in Shenandoah River tributary. Animals seeking water to drink and relief from heat cause pollution by eroding stream banks and depositing waste in water. (Robert Whitescarver) A stretch of Shenandoah River tributary where livestock have been kept away. Vegetation covers the banks, controlling erosion. (Robert Whitescarver)

The Shenandoah Valley of Virginia is treasured for its natural beauty, its mountains and rivers, and its recreational opportunities. The Valley is also home to hundreds of farms, some of them dating back to colonial days, where cattle are the primary livestock.

But those cows are a major source of pollution, according to a new report by the Environmental Integrity Project. The Washington-based nonprofit contends that the state is failing to do enough to curb polluted runoff from feedlots and fields in the Shenandoah Valley, as well as not requiring the fencing of cattle away from nearby waterways. Both issues impair water quality and put at risk those who enjoy the river and its tributaries, the group says.

The EIP report estimates that 528,000 dairy and beef cattle in the valley generate one billion gallons of liquid manure annually. This waste, high in phosphorus, is typically spread over fields either owned by the livestock farmer or by neighbors, to fertilize crops. But the local farmland simply can’t absorb the tonnage of waste that needs to be disposed of, the EIP contends. The manure is piled on so heavily that crops can’t absorb all the nutrients, especially phosphorus, leading to runoff into nearby streams and rivers.

Echoing findings of other environmental groups in previous years, the EIP report says that the overdose of nutrients from farm runoff is causing algae blooms downstream that choke off the oxygen supply for fish and other aquatic wildlife; it also contributes to the oxygen-starved “dead zones” in the Chesapeake Bay.

The EIP found excessive phosphorus levels from 2014 through 2016 at seven of 16, or nearly half, the long-term monitoring sites that the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality maintains along the Shenandoah. The state considers water quality “poor” when phosphorus concentrations exceed 50 micrograms per liter.

And phosphorus isn’t the only problem. The report says that levels of E. coli bacteria, which when swallowed can cause severe gastro-intestinal sickness, exceeded state standards at 91 percent of the locations (53 of 58) in the Shenandoah watershed that are regularly checked by the state.

“Despite the widespread bacterial contamination,” the EIP report says, “Virginia officials fail to warn the swimmers, tubers and kayakers who flock to the Shenandoah about the health risks, even when bacteria levels are more than 100 times the limit for water recreation.”

Eric Schaeffer, the EIP’s executive director, explained that the state considers water unsafe for swimming, fishing, tubing or other recreation when more than 10 percent of E. coli samples exceed a limit of 235 colony-forming units [a mass of individual bacterial cells growing together] per hundred milliliters.

“Almost all the monitored sites in the watershed exceed that threshold,” he pointed out, and some have exceeded it more than 100-fold.

Virginia monitors water quality in the summer at 46 Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Coast beaches and issues public advisories to avoid swimming when bacteria exceed safe levels at any of those locations. But it does not offer the same safeguards for users of other “natural waters,” such as the Shenandoah.

Manure runoff is a likely source of the high bacteria and phosphorus levels seen in the Shenandoah and its tributaries, Schaeffer said. He said gaps in Virginia’s regulatory regime are largely to blame.

The EIP director said that, “only the cropland leased or owned by large livestock operations is subject to nutrient limits in manure spreading plans. Those plans don’t apply to manure shipped offsite, even if it’s only next-door. That’s a major design flaw.”

On farms that do have plans, farmers either put down more manure than allowed, Schaeffer contended, or the crops don't take up the projected amount, most often because of lower than anticipated rainfall. Dry conditions cause layers of manure to remain in place over time until the eventual rainfall, which causes a sudden surge of contaminants into the river.

“The ‘limits’ are couched as ‘recommendations’ in these plans, so it’s not really clear whether these are requirements,” Schaeffer said, adding “we couldn’t find any records to show that a livestock operation was penalized for failing to follow plan guidelines.”

The EIP report recommends steps be taken to improve the valley’s sickly rivers. These include, “requiring nutrient management plans for all farms that spread manure, not just large animal operations;” analyzing actual rather than projected nitrogen or phosphorus removal rates every three years and adjusting nutrient management plans accordingly; and making the state “increase the frequency of sampling for E. coli, especially during months when people use the river for recreational activities.”

The EIP also calls for Virginia to list the Shenandoah River segments that have too much algae as officially “impaired” under the federal Clean Water Act, “so that the state can start taking more meaningful steps to curb pollution and accelerate its cleanup.”

One other measure that could help reduce pollution is keeping livestock back from the water. The animals erode stream banks, generating sediment and phosphorus pollution. They also contribute bacteria and more nutrients by defecating and urinating while drinking or cooling off in streams.

It’s not clear how many cattle farms in the Shenandoah watershed have stream fencing. But a recent survey by Shenandoah Riverkeeper Mark Frondorf found that only about 20 percent of the 841 livestock operations along streams or rivers in Rockingham County fenced their cattle off from the water.

According to the EIP report, Virginia’s plan for meeting the Bay pollution diet calls for fencing cattle out of streams on 95 percent of its farms. To get farmers to voluntarily comply, the state even offered to reimburse 100 percent of the costs. So many farmers applied that funding ran short, and the state “remains far behind its goal,” the report points out.

Clyde Cristman, director of Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation, said that he “completely agrees that (fencing) should be a major priority,” with the Shenandoah River one of the DCR’s “major target areas.” But he said that “it’s not as simple as just putting up a fence,” citing the need for regular maintenance of exclusionary infrastructure for long-term benefits to be realized. This he termed a “monumental task,” given the Valley’s traditional culture of independence.

Statewide since 2013, Cristman said, more than $58.8 million has been spent on 1,690 fencing projects to exclude about 78,000 head of livestock from the waterways. But because of funding shortfalls, there’s a backlog of 515 farmers waiting to receive money for fencing projects.
Russ Baxter, deputy secretary of natural resources for the Chesapeake Bay, said that “tens of millions of dollars” have been spent not just on fencing but on a “suite of practices” that include drilling wells for alternative water sources and hardened walkways across streams.

Baxter said that cleaning the state’s waterways is a priority for the administration of Gov. Terry McAuliffe. But funding for livestock exclusion comes from the Water Quality Improvement Fund, which he said “depends on the state surplus.” The state’s fiscal 2018 budget crunch means there will be no money for fencing in the coming year, but Baxter said he believed “funding will come along” through a stakeholder group composed of agencies, the Virginia Farm Bureau, and nongovernmental organizations. Their recommendations for filling the shortfall are due by the end of October.

“Farming has a rich tradition in the Valley and contributes a lot to its economy and way of life,” Schaeffer said, “but Shenandoah waters belong to the public, are enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of residents and visitors every year, and recreational and tourist industries make their own contribution to the Valley’s economy. Fencing your cattle to keep them out of streams that everyone uses is just being a good neighbor, and ought not to be something for ideologues to fight over.”

About William H. Funk
William H. (Bill) Funk is a freelance environmental journalist whose work for the Bay Journal centers on wildlife, forestry, rivers, farming and other land use issues in the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).
Read more articles by William H. Funk


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Peter Maier on April 27, 2017:

Nutrient (fertilizer) pollution originates from different sources, now mostly blamed on the runoffs from farms and cities, but what the public does not know is the best kept national secret, that EPA never implemented the CWA, because it used an essential test (BOD) incorrect and not only ignored 60% of this oxygen exerting waste in sewage, but all the nitrogenous (urine and protein) waste. This, while this waste, like fecal waste, exerts an oxygen demand and also is a fertilizer for algae. By calling this waste now a nutrient and blaming it mostly on farmers, the public has been successfully kept in the dark. Therefore no more new programs or lawsuits until EPA first acknowledges three major sources of nutrient pollution, that are presently ignored. 1. The lack of nitrogenous (urine and protein) waste treatment in municipal sewage, due to a faulty test and also causes nutrient pollution. 2. Septic tanks do not treat sewage, they only solubilize sewage so it can get into groundwater. 3. The impact of 'green'rain' or rain containing reactive nitrogen (fertilizer), the result of the burning of fossil fuels, the increased use if synthesized fertilizer and increased frequency of lightning storms, the result of global climate change.

Patrick on April 29, 2017:

Disagree Peter. Even if you are right, there is no excuse not to have nutrient management plans on farms that spread manure and fencing livestock out of streams. We know this works. There are other sources of nutrient pollution, and these should also be dealt with, but fecal coliform pollution does come from cows and their manure, and these program control both.

Bobby Whitescarver on May 02, 2017:

This is excellent journalism. Thank you, Mr. Funk and Bay Journal. The EIP report brings forth a lot of truth that many don't want to hear, and this article takes it further. I have worked with farmers in the Valley for 41 years to help them exclude their cattle from streams and rivers. Many have completed this important work and I thank them. I agree with the Riverkeeper; however, only 20% has been done. The state has put many resources into this issue and I thank them as well. Now is not the time to decrease funding for the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program or from the state. All of our efforts are working. The Bay is being restored ever so slowly and, in fact, it has been in a steady, slow recovery since the late 60's and the enactment of the Clean Water Act of 1972. The EIP report and this article illuminate the need for continued and increased funding for farmers to fence their cows out of streams and other measures. We have a cattle farm on the Middle River. We fenced our cattle out of it in 2004. The Friends of the Middle River take e.coli samples from the river when it enters our farm and it is consistently over 1,000cfu/100mls. One month last year it was over 6,000! The state standard for fresh water in VA is 235. We can and must do better than this. And by the way, the e.coli count when the river leaves our farm is on average 30% reduced. It works.

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