Man with cows

Greg Hewitt, who raises cattle on his Frederick County farm, says if fencing is required to keep livestock out of waterways, it could have the unintended consequence of reducing the amount of farmland.

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.”

— Contact Onofrio Castiglia at

(6) comments


"E.coli and fecal coliform, or bacteria from feces, are among the most commonly listed pollutants"

I agree that a fence won't help with run off. And, it would have been helpful to have some numbers related to "most commonly listed pollutants". If the top three offenders are at, say, 1000 units per liter (or however it is measured), 60 units per liter, and 10 units per liter, then you could still be "one of the top pollutants" while also not having as much of an effect as the 1000 units per liter item.

I'm also curious to know if there is a way to measure the amount of poo bacteria is included in run off vs having an entire herd of cattle pooping directly into the river....

Anna Thomson

We are all best served by doing what we can to help stop the pollution. There are many folks who plant barriers next to fresh water, etc. No sense in getting angry about it, lets just do what we can and thats that.


Mr. Hewitt is correct when he states that urban development, and the massive amount of contaminated run-off it generates, is the main cause of our polluted waterways. The chemical pollutants ending up in our water far outweigh the negative effects of cow-poo, as do the medical elements (hormones that are already affecting the sexual organs of fish in the Shenandoah River).
Fencing off the waterways from livestock will help, but it won't solve the main pollution emitters.


Well, sorry folks but that is not going to keep streams clean. Did you ever hear of run off. The water from rain runs through the fecal matter and right into the streams. Fact!! I have a well. I am surrounded by fields of live stock. I have a UV light on my well water due to bacteria contamination. The live stock don't poo in my well but surrounding area have rain and I get run off in the well.

Steve Cunningham

Expensive fencing isn't going to keep the runoff from affecting your well. This is crazy, livestock and wildlife have been pooing in nature forever. I agree that the runoff from the massive urban spraw and even the contamination from human waste from septic systems in rural areas that can be developed without county involvement have more influence than Ol Bessie crapping in the fields.


Yeah, but now the powers that be can feel better about themselves for tackling the issue!

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