Cows. People don’t often think about the environmental impact of livestock.
But for more than three decades, the Chesapeake Bay region states have recognized that one of the most obvious and affordable ways to help clean up the bay is to fence cattle out of streams, where they defecate and release sediment by trampling the banks. However, because of the political influence of the farm lobby, not one of the bay states requires streamside fencing on cattle farms.
More strangely, none of the states -- or even the EPA Chesapeake Bay Program -- knows, or even attempts to track, what percentage of farmers follow this best management practice to protect public waterways.
Cows wading into streams has been contributing to fecal bacterial contamination and odious algal blooms in Virginia’s Shenandoah River. So the nonprofit Shenandoah Riverkeeper organization last year decided to conduct its own survey of streamside cattle fencing, because the state had not.
Examining detailed aerial photographs from Google Earth, the Shenandoah Riverkeeper discovered that 80 percent of the 841 farms with both 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 officials had promised EPA the state would achieve to reduce pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.
“This is really important,” said Mark Frondorf, the Shenandoah Riverkeeper. It’s important because – until those cows are removed from the streams and rivers, it’s going to be difficult to bring those bacteria loads down to a safe level for human contact.”
A recent Environmental Integrity Project investigation found that – because of manure overload in the Shenandoah Valley – 90 percent of the 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 are popular on the river.
Yet the state never warns people using the Shenandoah River, although it does advise swimmers on Virginia’s ocean beaches not to enter the water when bacteria levels above the health standard.
I asked Darryl Glover, Director of the Division of Soil and Water Conservation Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, why the state doesn’t require farmers to keep their cattle out of streams. Glover was blunt in saying the state has chosen not to regulate the farming industry – even though it’s the biggest source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.
“You know, of course, in Virginia, we don’t really regulate agriculture,” Glover said. “We believe in voluntary incentive programs.”
Under a voluntary program, the state 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 then funding was cut for the program – and so now the state is far short of its fencing goals.
Pennsylvania is even worse. In 1980, state legislators passed a law that prohibits the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection from requiring farmers to raise fences to exclude their cattle from public waterways.
Maryland adopted a different approach. In 2012, the state imposed regulations that require farmers to exclude their cattle from streams. The state reimburses farmers 87.5 percent of the costs. But the Maryland rules still allow some wiggle room and do not actually require fences.
“The requirement is to keep animals out of streams,” said Hans Schmidt, Assistant Secretary for Resource Conservation at the Maryland Department of Agriculture. “Provide them with another source of drinking water that’s away from the stream, to draw the animals away from there. If it still continues to be a problem, where farm animals are going into the stream, then, other alternatives would be that you could use some sort of vegetated buffer – trees, bushes, and that kind of stuff to keep animals out. Or you can go as far as using the fencing itself.”
The jury is still out on how well this 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.