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.”