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During the month of June, this WMRA series will explore the state of Virginia's unique environment, specifically its water, air and soil. How does agriculture affect our drinkable water, and the health of the Chesapeake Bay watershed? How well are we doing cleaning up industrial pollutants such as mercury? Are decades-old problems, such as acid rain and runoff from coal-fueled power plants, getting solved? How clean is the air we breathe?

Keeping Cattle Away from Streams: Clean Virginia, Part 1

Agriculture is one of the leading causes of pollution in Virginia’s waterways.  WMRA’s Kara Lofton has the first in this occasional series on “Clean Virginia,” which will focus on pollution in our water, air and soil, and efforts over decades to clean it up.

[Sound of walking through grass]

On Bobby Whitescarver’s farm in Swoope, cattle graze contentedly on lush pastures beside lazy streams. The whole atmosphere is almost poetic. But it didn’t used to be that way.

BOBBY WHITESCARVER: Before we put these fences up, the cattle had access to all the water and you couldn’t drive from one end of the farm to the other because of all the muck.

The muck is a combination of mud stirred up from the hooves of cows that weigh a ton or more, and their feces. Whitescarver says when stream banks aren’t protected by fences and vegetation, even a light rain can carry the muck from the pastures into nearby streams. 

Whitescarver worked as a field conservationist for the USDA for 31 years before retiring to focus on writing, farming and activism. While at the USDA, he helped farmers install watering and fencing systems on almost 500 miles of stream bank.

As we walk through his fields, he points to the movable electric fences that line the stream beside one pasture. They are part of a system to block his livestock from the streams. That system also includes 35-foot riparian buffers of native vegetation and trees.

The result of livestock runoff is contamination of tributaries by fecal coliform, antibiotics, and growth hormones. These tributaries feed into rivers such as the Shenandoah, Potomac and James, which provide central and western Virginia residents with drinking water, recreation and fishing opportunities. They are also dirty enough that the Virginia Department of Health has issued fish consumption advisories for all three rivers.

According to Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality, the agricultural pollutants in our waterways fall into three main categories: bacteria from livestock, excess nutrients from fertilizer and sediment from runoff.

The problem is linked to rain. When rain falls on well-vegetated land, the vegetation actually helps the ground absorb the water by preventing the water from rolling downhill to the nearest stream, pond or puddle.

Back at his farm, Whitescarver points to the stream beside one of his pastures.

WHITESCARVER: My actions on this farm affect that water. And what we do on our land greatly affects the quality of the water. Because the soil out here, this open space, is the regulator of the water cycle. When rain falls on good, well-managed land like this, it goes through the soil, which is a big carbon filter, recharges the ground water and gets into the stream, so it’s our filter. If you’ve got a feedlot or bare soil or pesticides or fertilizer runoff -- there is a whole litany of pollutants -- when rain water hits that and it runs off, it gets in that water and it pollutes it for everyone else. So what I do here affects that person, next person, next person downstream.

In a healthy ecosystem, a stream can manage small amounts of excess waste. In fact, for a long time the motto with conservationists was “dilution is the solution.” But even a healthy stream struggles to dilute and process the huge influx of waste that accompanies rain near unprotected agricultural sites.

Cattle in this particular pasture are watered from a gravity-fed watering trough that pulls clean water from the stream into the trough. Whitescarver said the change has almost eliminated scours, foot root and other common cattle diseases.   And the fences have also almost halved fecal coliform in the stream water passing through his farm.

WHITESCARVER: Ninety percent of all the streams are small so if we can protect these small streams, that’s where you start cleaning up a watershed.

Replanting the stream banks with native vegetation like Whitecarver has is considered a “Best Management Practice.” These are practices that Gary Flory of the Department of Environmental Quality helps farmers implement to reduce the amount of pollution coming from their farms.  Flory says these practices are making a huge difference.

GARY FLORY: We’ll work with the farmer, to put together a plan that they develop and give us a time frame for. What can you reasonably do to address these areas of potential discharge on your farm and how long is it going to take you to do it?

Flory says the program is generally well received by farmers because his team tries to work with farmers to design a system that works well for a particular farm and budget.  The reduction in agricultural pollution is not only making livestock healthier, Whitescarver says, but is cleaning up drinking and recreational water for everyone, even those outside of agricultural areas.

WHITESCARVER: Farms that are well managed – meaning they are building soil health, there’s no livestock in the streams, they’ve got buffers, vegetative buffers, native trees along the banks –- those farms are producing clean water. They’re sequestering carbon, they’re creating wildlife habitat, pollinator quarters. You know, that’s a benefit to you.

Kara Lofton is a photojournalist based in Harrisonburg, VA. She is a 2014 graduate of Eastern Mennonite University and has been published by EMU, Sojourners Magazine, and The Mennonite. Her reporting for WMRA is her radio debut.
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