One would never see cows in streams in Annapolis — or in Lancaster, Norfolk, Richmond or Washington, DC, for that matter. In fact, I can’t recall seeing a cow in any of these places in quite some time.
For my friends and colleagues around the watershed though, the sight of cows in a stream is not as uncommon. And, for those of us in communities with regulatory obligations to clean up wastewater discharges and polluted stormwater runoff, this can be quite frustrating.
Across the watershed, those of us in local government hear from our citizens that what matters to them is the stream in their community. Certainly, healthy local streams help ensure a viable source of drinking water, provide irrigation to farm lands and are a source of recreation for residents and visitors. It’s rare, though, that regulatory obligations are discussed in the context of what’s good for our communities.
In an effort to better understand the farmers’ challenges and what local governments can do to improve stream health, the Bay Program’s Local Government Advisory Committee spoke with representatives from several agencies about their strategies. The Chesapeake Bay Commission, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection shared ways in which improved practices for streamside farms can support healthier local waters.
Livestock exclusion — keeping cows, sheep and other livestock out of streams — includes a variety of practices such as fencing, alternative watering and vegetative buffers.
In its conversations, LGAC members learned that what is good for the stream is also good for livestock. A recent report by the Chesapeake Bay Commission, “Healthy Livestock, Healthy Streams,” explains the benefits in both pictures and words. One set of pictures shows bacteria in petri dishes from water samples taken from the Pogue Run in August County, VA, before and after farmers in the area instituted livestock exclusion practices.
Seeing the difference in water quality samples and understanding the health benefits of livestock exclusion made us wonder why livestock exclusion isn’t more common. The report answers that question. I encourage you to get a copy of the report and share it.
Riparian forest buffers are also critical to stream health, according to Al Todd, executive director of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. The buffers trap excess sediment and pollutants and keep them from entering nearby waters.
Unfortunately, the installation of forest buffers has been declining the last several years, even though they are one of the most cost-effective practices available to meet the pollutant reduction requirements of the Chesapeake Bay TMDL.
So how can local governments take advantage of best practices? One way to get more buffers installed is to base future funding on the installation of riparian forest buffers. The Alliance and its partners have created the “Healthy Streams Farm Stewardship Program,” which uses an “if/then” approach. If farmers install buffers then they’re eligible for more money to institute other practices. Approaches like this need the support of local officials.
Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, offered several suggestions, many of which involved simply communicating with the farming community about the benefits of getting livestock out of streams. Local governments can partner with their local Conservation District to offer training for landowners; they can talk to their peers, particularly those in the farming community, about stream health; and they can promote livestock exclusion and riparian buffers in community newsletters.
Local governments wanting to do more could plant trees along streams in parks and on other public grounds; adopt land use regulations to protect existing buffers; or enact land use taxation policies to incentivize the establishment of buffers.
Many of us in local government realize that we must work together with the agricultural community to protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Much of our progress to date is a result of significant investment in upgrading wastewater treatment plants throughout the region.
As we near 2017, when we will be assessed on our progress toward meeting the pollution reduction targets established in the Chesapeake Bay TMDL, we must be strategic. We must invest in practices such as livestock exclusion and increasing forest buffers, which are cost-effective and provide benefits locally. We must work together for clean water!