New reports show high levels of bacteria in the Shenandoah waterway: how BMP can help

Published: Aug. 12, 2022 at 11:57 AM EDT
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HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) - A new report from the Environmental Integrity Project shows that 76% of samples taken from the Shenandoah waterway showed levels of E. coli that the U.S Environmental Protection Agency would deem unsafe to swim in.

According to EIP Director of Communications Tom Pelton, this directly correlates with the lack of stream fencing found on farms in Augusta and Rockingham County. Their 2020 study showed only 19% of farms in the area had fencing.

“The more cattle that are fenced out of streams, the less sediment we have in streams, the less waste we have in or streams causing bacteria issues,” he said.

Since reporting his findings two years ago, Pelton has noticed improvement on the state and local levels for this practice.

“Our research shows that farmers are doing better fencing their cattle out of streams in the Shenandoah Valley,” Pelton said.

However, there are not enough changes being made to see an improvement in the bacteria levels.

”Although we are seeing an increase of farmers fencing cattle of streams, the numbers are still pretty small,” he said. “In a good year, we’ll have about 50 farmers from Augusta and Rockingham Counties sign up to get stream-side fencing, but that’s 55 out of thousands of farmers.”

He noticed an increase in state funding for programs like the Best Management Practices program which is designed to improve water quality by incentivizing farmers to adopt conservation practices. Earlier this year, Virginia’s General Assembly approved a record amount of funding, which gives the program $295 million dollars to use over the next two years.

Headwaters Soil and Water Conservation District Conservation Specialist Aaron Lucas said the increase in funding for the cost-share program would hopefully allow them to approve nearly every farmer who applies-which they have not been able to do since the pandemic.

In 2020, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law that could make stream fencing mandatory if they do not see significant improvement in the water quality by 2025.

Lucas urged farmers not to take that risk.

“We would prefer that people don’t wait to see if it happens or not,” he said. “We have no idea what the economy is going to look like in Virginia’s two-year budget. We could get to 2026 and not have the money, but we have it now.”

Pelton says that fencing is the most effective practice when it comes to water-quality improvement and programs like this make it more accessible. But for some people in the Valley, the nature of the BMP program still makes it complicated.

“One of the biggest barriers to people participating is that it’s a reimbursement after the project is done,” Lucas recalled. “Between the time you put in the first round of money and the time you get paid, it could be months or a year [for big projects].”

The current state of the farm economy and loan acceptance were other obstacles he mentioned.

He says right now the maximum amount a farmer can receive in cost-share is $300,000 in reimbursement, with some exceptions.

Lucas says there is an interest-free loan that farmers can apply for to help with the up-front costs of these projects.

“Now is the time to take advantage of this opportunity while we still have it,” he said. “If you’ve talked to the district in the past and we weren’t able to offer what you were looking for, the program has changed a lot.”

In the meantime, Pelton cautioned those planning to swim in the waterway that ingesting the bacteria can make you very sick.

The start the process for the BMP program, contact the Soil and Water Conservation District for your city.

To learn more about the bacteria levels in the Shenandoah and beyond, click here.

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