WINCHESTER — Hundreds of waterways and reservoirs in Virginia need to be cleaned up, according to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.
But what’s the source of the pollution and who’s responsible for cleaning it up?
Last week, the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), a Washington, D.C.- based nonprofit group, released a report with the Shenandoah Riverkeeper citing the lack of stream-side fencing on farms in Rockingham and Augusta counties as a primary cause of water degradation. Nearly 1,700 streams were surveyed.
“We couldn’t do it everywhere,” Tom Pelton, the group’s director of communications, said about the scope of the two-year study. The findings indicate that 81 percent of livestock farmers in those two counties do not have fencing to keep their animals out of waterways. “We do think this is relevant up and down the Shenandoah Valley.”
Both forks of the Shenandoah River are on a 2016 list of impaired waters, which is the most recent data available, as are Cedar Creek and Back Creek, which flow through the area.
E.coli and fecal coliform, or bacteria from feces, are among the most commonly listed pollutants. The EIP report lists a 2004 research study conducted by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation and James Madison University that found 94 percent of fecal matter at one location on the South Fork of the Shenandoah River was attributable to livestock. But industrial chemicals are also polluters.
EIP is advocating for mandatory stream-side fencing in Virginia, as well as full taxpayer funding to build that infrastructure statewide.
“It’s not that expensive,” Pelton said, adding that it costs more to control and clean dirty water than it would to keep the water clean to begin with. “[Water treatment facilities and containment ponds] cost taxpayers a lot more money.”
Farmers are currently able to get a 75% reimbursement for fencing projects from the state, but EIP calls for a 100% reimbursement.
Some farmers in the region are on board with fencing as a best management practice.
Others, like Shenandoah County beef cattle farmer Scott Stickley, are in favor of the concept but have hesitations.
“If I fence off my cows, they’ve got no shade,” said Stickley, who has a 600-acre farm. “They almost need a building.”
He said it’s not that solutions don’t exist. They just cost money.
Greg Hewitt, who raises cattle on about 1,000 acres off Apple Pie Ridge Road in Frederick County, said a mandatory fencing law would most likely cause him to sell his land.
“If they go full-stream fencing, I’ll go out of business,” Hewitt said.
If farming proves too difficult or frustrating, landowners are more likely to sell to developers, Hewitt said. Before the recession and housing crisis of 2008, he had developers regularly offering him as much as $20,000 per acre.
Hewitt served one term on the Frederick County Sanitation Authority and maintains that urban development is worse for water quality than farming.
He said it’s not uncommon for raw sewage to flow into area creeks during periods of heavy rain, when wastewater facilities are overwhelmed.
He said he believes pollution reduction efforts are best directed at developed urban areas. “I’m not the one destroying the earth.”