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Environmental study shows high levels if E.coli in Valley waterways, agriculture having significant impact

Updated: May. 14, 2021 at 8:00 PM EDT
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HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) - As the temperatures warm up, more people will be jumping into Shenandoah Valley waterways, but a new report is making some think twice about doing so.

Almost three-quarters of water quality monitoring sites in the Valley showed levels of E.coli last year, according to the Environmental Integrity Project. Levels so high that Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wouldn’t consider them safe for swimming.

“A lot of this pollution is coming from farms that allow their cattle to wade down into the streams and defecate directly into the rivers,” Tom Pelton, the Director of Communications with the Environmental Integrity Project, said. “Also the over application of farm manure near the rivers means a runoff of a lot of waste into the waterways. That’s leading to very high bacteria levels.”

Pelton said state reports show agricultural runoff, including livestock operations and industrial-scale poultry operations, contaminated 71% of polluted rivers and streams in the Valley. He said other pollution could come from wildlife or even leaky septic tanks.

“It does go up and down from year to year,” Pelton said. “I’m not going to say it’s getting better or worse.”

The number of waterway sites sampled for bacteria by Virginia is declining. An average of 70 places on waterways in the Valley were sampled between 2015 and 2018, but only 35 in 2019 and 25 in 2020.

Some farmers have made efforts, like Bob Threewitts the owner of Twin Oaks Farm in Rockingham County. He has fenced his cattle out of Cub Run.

“We were able to not only able to take some of the ground out of production and plant trees on it but also keep the stream banks preserved and the cattle out of the stream,” Threewitts said.

In 2019, the Environmental Integrity Project and Shenandoah Riverkeeper released a report using aerial photography to document that only about 20% of livestock farms in Rockingham and Augusta counties had fenced their cattle out of streams and rivers.

Partly in response to that report and in its own follow-up study, Virginia boosted its reimbursement rates for farmers who install fencing, leading to increased sign-ups for the fencing reimbursement program last year.

Threewitts said fencing is expensive and takes time, but as support from the state grows more farmers are jumping on board with reimbursement rates between 85 and 100 percent.

“The reimbursement of the cost-share programs is a big factor in it,” Threewitts said. “Putting up a fence is not a cheap proposition.”

While an average of 290 farmers a year installed livestock fencing with partial state reimbursement from fiscal years 2016 through 2019, that number jumped to 692 in fiscal 2020 and is on a pace for more than 900 in fiscal 2021, according to the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.

Pelton said this study does not mean you should avoid all recreation on Valley waterways, but instead try not to put your head underwater.

“If you’re staying in your boat, kayaking or canoeing, it’s safe, but what we’re saying is, this shouldn’t be an issue. We shouldn’t have to worry about jumping into the water,” Pelton said. “Virginia needs to do more.”

The Environmental Integrity Project has interactive maps following waterways around the Valley and shows which ones it considers to be safe or unsafe for swimming. You can find that interactive map here.

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