Report: Many cattle aren’t fenced out of waterways, increasing pollution in the Shenandoah Valley

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After examining Google Earth images of 1,676 livestock farms with rivers or streams in the Shenandoah Valley, two environmental groups determined that 81 percent are failing to fence their cattle out of streams, according to a new report.

Allowing cattle to access waterways contributes to high fecal bacteria and pollution not only in local rivers but ultimately in the Chesapeake Bay as well, according to the Environmental Integrity Project and the Shenandoah Riverkeeper.

“Although bay restoration experts for decades have agreed that fencing livestock out of waterways is an important way to reduce nutrient, sediment and bacterial pollution, neither the EPA Chesapeake Bay Program nor any of the regional states knows — or even attempts to track — what percentage of farmers fence their cattle out of waterways,” the report says.

The groups examined the aerial photographs in Augusta and Rockingham counties, finding that only 19 percent had fenced their cattle out of waterways.

As part of its official bay cleanup plan, in 2010 Virginia promised the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that it would protect 95 percent of stream footage on farms with fences by 2025, according to an Environmental Integrity Project news release.

“In January 2019, Virginia estimated that farmers had used public funds to install 22 million linear feet of fencing, which would mean that state was at least 19 percent toward its fencing goal for 2025,” the release states. “But following evidence that the state’s voluntary program is not working to encourage this fencing, state officials are now proposing to eliminate its goal for fencing.”

The Google Earth photos that the Environmental Integrity Project examined were taken in 2017 of Augusta County farms, while the Shenandoah Riverkeeper did a similar survey of Rockingham County in 2016.

“Clearly, Virginia is falling far short of its own goals of using fencing to protect rivers and streams on farms from the fecal bacteria and pollution of the livestock industry,” Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, said in the news release, adding that the state should require farmers to fence their cattle and provide them with the funds to do so.