Cows crossing a stream on a farm. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)
A state push to encourage farmers to fence off streams from their livestock as a way to improve water quality throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed appears to be succeeding.
According to data from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, the number of farmers who have committed to fencing off waterways rose by 86 percent between 2019 and 2020, from 372 participating in 2019 to 692 this year.
Both the nonprofit watchdog Environmental Integrity Project and Virginia Division of Soil and Water Conservation Director Darryl Glover attribute the uptick to a 2019 decision by the Soil and Water Conservation Board to increase financial incentives for farmers by paying them to create land buffers and reimbursing them for more of the costs of fencing off livestock.
“The commonwealth remains far behind in its Bay cleanup goals for streamside fencing,” said EIP Director of Communications Tom Pelton in a news release about the rising numbers. “But these increased payments to farmers and reimbursement rates appear to be working to help close the gap.”
Getting farmers to fence off waterways has been a long-time goal for Virginia policymakers as well as environmentalists. While streams and the vegetation that surrounds them provide animals with an easy source of water and shade, cattle in particular pose both environmental and health threats to the community. Their regular crossing of streambeds leads to erosion and large amounts of sediment in waterways, one of the three major pollutants that Chesapeake Bay states have been trying for decades to curb. Their waste can also introduce harmful bacteria like E.coli into drinking water sources.
“While it can be an expensive thing to do to build that much fence, and especially then go to a watering system that provides an alternative source of water, in the grand scheme of things getting the animals out of the stream and preventing direct deposition of their waste and contaminants is great,” said Chesapeake Bay Foundation scientist Matt Kowalski. “They’re not peeing in it, they’re not pooping in it, and they’re not depositing bacteria in it as a vector” of disease.
Fencing, though, comes with a cost. Fences themselves are not cheap, and closing animals off from waterways means farmers have to provide their herds with another source of water, and perhaps shade. Furthermore, the creation of vegetated land buffers between a fence and a waterway that is considered best practice for improving water quality can take arable land out of commission.
To incentivize farmers to adopt these practices, Virginia has for many years offered reimbursement of costs through DCR’s Agricultural Cost-Share Program. In 2015, the 100 percent reimbursement rate offered by the department led to 1,788 farmers signing up for the program.
“The demand at the time was so high, it resulted in a backlog that lasted until the 2019 General Assembly provided the final amount of funding needed to meet the remaining backlog,” Glover wrote in an email.
In subsequent years, the reimbursement rate was dropped, and participation declined, hitting a low of 103 in 2016.
Water quality concerns remained, however, especially as Virginia began developing the final phase of its plan to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. Stream fencing was one of the major tools policymakers hoped to deploy in reducing pollution from the agriculture sector, but adoption was slow. A joint report from the Environmental Integrity Project and the Shenandoah Riverkeeper in April 2019 found that just 19 percent of livestock farms with waterways in the major cattle counties of Augusta and Rockingham had installed stream fencing. A later study by DCR found a participation rate of 41 percent, still far below the state’s 95 percent target.
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Hoping to increase buy-in, in 2019 the Soil and Water Conservation Board approved a host of changes to its fencing programs, allowing farmers to be reimbursed larger amounts based on factors such as buffer size, distance between fence and stream and length of commitment. Critically, the board also established a “buffer payment” that would give farmers $80 for every acre they put aside as vegetated buffer every year.
“It creates some flexibility within the program,” said Kowalski, who sits on the technical advisory committee that helped draft the policy changes. “We’re trying to create more incentives for farmers to employ these best management practices.”
Efforts are underway to expand the program further: A 2020 law sponsored by Sen. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg, and Del. Kenneth Plum, D-Fairfax, ordered DCR to develop standards for “portable” stream fencing, which officials hope will appeal to farmers who rent their pastureland.
“Between 40 and 50 percent of acres pastured in Virginia are leased,” said Kowalski. “If a farmer doesn’t own the land, they can be real reluctant to spend the money on something as expensive as fencing or alternative water systems.”
Despite steep budget cuts in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Virginia’s General Assembly has so far preserved nearly all of the agricultural cost-share funding that it committed in March: the revised budget approved by lawmakers this October slashed only $2 million from the original $95 million allocation.
Other funds may be on the way: the Soil and Water Conservation Board on Wednesday approved more than $2 million for a program that will further boost financial incentives for small cattle farmers. And budget amendments put forward by Gov. Ralph Northam this week in response to a better-than-expected revenue forecast call for an additional $13.5 million in agricultural cost-share funding. Chesapeake Bay Foundation Virginia Executive Director Peggy Sanner said the extra funds “would allow more farmers to put conservation projects on the ground, the most cost-effective way to restore local waterways.”
While the current program remains voluntary, lawmakers have signaled they’re prepared to take more aggressive action. A key provision of Mason and Plum’s 2020 bill states that if Virginia doesn’t meet its bay cleanup goals by July 1, 2026, all property owners in the Bay watershed with 20 or more bovines would be required to install stream fencing.
Kowalski said that with rising adoption, he’s optimistic farmers will continue to embrace the idea.
“The best advocate we have for these best management practices is a farmer who has used them and is satisfied with them,” he said.
CORRECTION: This story has been corrected to note that Sen. Monty Mason carried the 2020 stream fencing bill in the Senate. Sen. Emmett Hanger worked on amendments to it.
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