For decades, the Chesapeake Bay region states and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have recognized that one of the most obvious and affordable ways to reduce pollution in the estuary — Bay Cleanup 101 — is to fence cattle out of streams.
When they defecate, cows release bacteria that make waterways unsafe for swimming. But more significantly for the Bay’s ecological health, the waste contains nitrogen and phosphorus that fuel the excessive growth of algae and low-oxygen “dead zones.” Livestock also trample the banks of streams, releasing nutrient-laden sediment downriver.
This is news to no one. But here’s what’s surprising: Despite the universally accepted wisdom that cattle should be kept out of public waterways, not a single Bay region state requires farmers to fence their cows out of streams. In fact, lawmakers in the state with the largest agricultural footprint in the Bay watershed — Pennsylvania — passed legislation that prohibits state officials from requiring farmers to build streamside fences.
This is a result of the influence of the farm lobby, which fights even the most basic regulations. But what’s more disturbing is that none of the state governments — or even the state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program — knows, or even attempts to track, what percentage of farmers follows this best management practice to protect public waterways.
Some agencies keep related but less meaningful statistics, such as how many feet of fencing of all kinds have been raised on farms and other waterfront properties. But there is an eerie silence about numbers that would allow real accountability for the agricultural industry, even though it is the biggest source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.
A lack of cattle fencing was just one of several problems examined by a recent Environmental Integrity Project report, Water Pollution from the Livestock Industry in the Shenandoah Valley. We scrutinized thousands of pages of Virginia state records to conclude that the over-application of cattle and poultry waste to farm fields is contributing to excessive levels of phosphorus, fecal bacteria and algal blooms in the Shenandoah’s waterways.
According to state monitoring data, 90 percent of the regularly sampled water quality monitoring stations up and down the valley’s waterways from 2014 to 2016 detected levels of E. coli bacteria that are unsafe for the swimming, tubing and rafting that make the Shenandoah a popular destination. Yet the state never warns people about the unhealthy levels of fecal bacteria in the river.
Many of the bacterial impairments in the valley’s waterways come from agriculture, according to state records. Virginia has an inadequate system for managing the more than 1 billion gallons of liquid manure and 800 million pounds of poultry litter produced annually by the 528,000 cows and 160 million chickens raised in Shenandoah, Augusta, Page and Rockingham counties. Only 12.5 percent of the 539,955 acres of farmland in the valley have “nutrient management plans,” which advise farmers not to over-apply manure. And although Virginia, like Maryland, has a manure transport program that is designed to ship excess waste from fields that are already overloaded to farms elsewhere, only 8 percent of this “exported” manure leaves the Shenandoah watershed, meaning that much of it runs off to pollute the same local waterways.
This is part of a bigger picture across the Bay watershed. To protect the public, state governments need to start testing waterways more frequently and warning local residents about bacterial contamination from farm runoff. Better yet, the states should solve the problem. They should force the big meat processing companies, like Tyson and Cargill, to pay for fences and more responsible methods of disposing of their excess waste. Otherwise, taxpayers are up the creek with the cleanup bill.
More information is needed, too. Like the other Bay states, Virginia does not even know what percentage of its farmers fence their cattle out of streams. So the nonprofit organization Shenandoah Riverkeeper last fall conducted its own survey of streamside fencing.
Examining detailed aerial photographs, the Shenandoah Riverkeeper concluded that 80 percent of the 841 farms with cattle and streams in Virginia’s biggest agricultural county — Rockingham — had failed to fence their animals out of the waterways. This 20 percent fencing rate is a far cry from the 95 percent rate that Virginia promised the Environmental Protection Agency that the state would achieve to meet the federal Chesapeake Bay pollution “diet,” the Total Maximum Daily Load.
During an interview for my radio program, The Environment in Focus, I asked Darryl Glover, a director at the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, why the state does not require farmers to fence their cattle out of streams. Glover was blunt in saying the state has chosen not to regulate the largest source of pollution in the Bay.
“You know, of course, in Virginia, we don’t really regulate agriculture,” Glover said. “We believe in voluntary incentive programs.”
Under such a voluntary program, Virginia from 2012 to 2015 offered farmers 100 percent reimbursement for the cost of installing streamside fencing and related projects to keep cows out of waterways. But the state failed to adequately fund the program — and so now hundreds of farmers are waiting in line and the state is short of its fencing goals.
Maryland adopted a different approach. In 2012, the state imposed regulations that require farmers to exclude their cattle from streams and reimburses farmers 87.5 percent of the costs. But the Maryland rules allow a lot of wiggle room, because they do not actually require fences. Instead, farmers can install livestock watering tanks and plant trees or bushes along streams with the hope that vegetation might discourage cows from wading into the water.
The jury is still out on how well this muddy non-requirement requirement will work. But if the Shenandoah River is any guide, it is clear that the voluntary approach has failed for managing farm runoff pollution into the Chesapeake Bay.
The views expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal.