Virginia’s System of Controlling Manure Runoff Fails to Protect the Public: 90 Percent of Water Monitoring Sites in Shenandoah and Tributaries Show Unsafe Levels of E. coli Bacteria
Washington, D.C., April 26, 2017 – As families plan for the annual ritual of rafting down the Shenandoah River, a new report about livestock industry manure runoff reveals unhealthy levels of bacteria, phosphorus pollution and frequent algae blooms that threaten the recreational use of the valley’s waterways.
The report by the Environmental Integrity Project, “Water Pollution from Livestock in the Shenandoah Valley,” relies on state records to document that more than 90 percent of the water quality monitoring stations where the state regularly samples the Shenandoah River and its tributaries detected fecal bacteria (E. coli) at levels unsafe for human contact in 2014-2016.
Despite the widespread bacterial contamination, Virginia officials fail to warn the swimmers, tubers and kayakers who flock to the Shenandoah about the health risks, even when bacteria levels are more than 100 times the limit for water recreation. In contrast, the state warns people to avoid ocean waters that fail to meet the recreational limits.
Most of the manure from the 159 million chickens, 16 million turkeys and 528,000 cows raised annually in the valley’s Shenandoah, Augusta, Page, and Rockingham counties is spread on surrounding farmland as fertilizer, but contains far more phosphorus than crops need for growth. The excess manure leaks pollutants into groundwater and is often washed by rain into surrounding streams.
“Virginia needs to start notifying the public that the Shenandoah Valley’s waterways are unsafe for swimming and tubing – or, better yet, the state should solve this manure overload problem,” said Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project and former Director of Civil Enforcement at EPA. “The state should either require the livestock industry –or use public funds — to collect the excess manure that crops can’t use and ship it out of the valley, to a region that needs it.”
The report concludes that the state’s system for controlling manure runoff from the livestock and poultry industries needs major improvements to protect the health of local waterways and the Chesapeake Bay.
“Virginia’s failed pollution control system damages our waterways,” said Mark Frondorf, the Shenandoah Riverkeeper. “Excessive algal blooms drive down oxygen levels, suffocating fish and creating dead zones. The environment suffers, but so does our economy. Industries that rely on clean water depend on state regulators to do their jobs.”
Virginia currently requires pollution control plans for only 12.5 percent of the farmland in the valley. These documents, called “nutrient management plans,” have limited impact because they allow farmers to keep piling on more manure even to fields that are already have more than enough phosphorus for crop growth.
Under the state’s current system to reduce runoff from fields that are already overloaded with manure, 86 percent of the poultry manure in the valley is “exported” to other farms. But waste transfer records for 2013, 2014, and 2015 show that the “exported” manure rarely leaves the Shenandoah Valley watershed. For example, an estimated 92 percent of the poultry waste shipped offsite is simply spread on nearby farms. This allows phosphorus and bacteria in the manure to run off and pollute the same local waterways.
Almost half (7 of 16) of the long-term state monitoring stations on the Shenandoah and its tributaries detected high phosphorus pollution levels in 2014 through 2016, based on averages from those years, according to state records. This glut of phosphorus, a plant food, fuels the growth of blankets of algae that are increasingly hurting the fishing and paddling industries in the valley.
Colby Trow, a professional fishing guide and tackle store owner whose business, Mossy Creek Fly Fishing, is based in Harrisonburg, said: “Unfortunately claiming the Shenandoah our home water is becoming more and more embarrassing each year as we see constant algae blooms, fish kills, disease, foul smelling water, experience waterborne infections, and more. Some of our guests will not return to fish the Shenandoah or our area again as a result of what they see on the water.”
Because of the increasingly frequent algal blooms, the Shenandoah Riverkeeper and parent organization, Potomac Riverkeeper Network, petitioned the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality in 2015 to identify the Shenandoah’s waters as officially “impaired” by algae under the federal Clean Water Act – a designation that would require stronger efforts to control pollution. The state and EPA, which approves the state’s impairment decisions, have failed to take this action to protect the river.
The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) analyzed pollution management plans for 675 factory farms in Augusta, Page, Rockingham, and Shenandoah counties, and 448 inspection reports from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, as well as other state and federal records, and reached the following conclusions about Shenandoah Valley’s livestock pollution problem:
- More than two-thirds of all chickens grown in Virginia, and 90 percent of the state’s turkeys, are raised in the valley’s Shenandoah, Augusta, Page, and Rockingham counties, along with more than a half million cows. These animals produce 1.15 billion gallons of liquid cow manure and 820 million pounds of poultry litter a year, which is far more than local crops can absorb as fertilizer.
- Most of the manure is spread on local farm fields. But only 12.5 percent of the 539,955 acres of farmland in these four counties are covered by “nutrient management plans” designed to discourage farmers from over-applying manure.
- Over half of the farm acres that are covered by plans do not need any more phosphorus from manure in their soil, because they already have enough. But on 82 percent of these saturated acres, the plans authorize the spreading of still more waste. This adds yet more phosphorus every year onto fields that do not need it.
- A lack of streamside fencing on farms with cattle is also a problem, with 80 percent of the 841 farms with livestock in the valley’s biggest agricultural county – Rockingham – failing to fence their animals out of streams.
- The result of the manure overload and the lack of fencing is waste fouling waterways. In 2014 through 2016, E. coli bacteria concentrations exceeded the state’s standards for safe water contact recreation at 91 percent of state monitoring locations (at 53 of 58 regularly samples sites) in the Shenandoah River and its tributaries, according to state data.
The EIP report makes the following recommendations for improvements to Virginia’s method of managing livestock waste:
- Virginia needs to establish a better system for collecting and disposing of surplus livestock manure. The funding for that system should be provided at least in part by the large poultry and beef processors that profit from the farm operations.
- The state should require nutrient management plans for all farms that spread manure, not just a few of them. And these plans should be strengthened by requiring farmers to file annual reports that include their manure application rates as well as actual crop yields.
- Inspections of industrial-scale poultry and cattle operations by state officials today are limited and enforcement is rare. Virginia needs to tighten up inspections and enforcement, and require all cattle operations to fence their cattle out of streams.
- State officials should increase the frequency of bacteria monitoring in the valley’s waterways. And when bacteria levels are too high, the state should post signs warning the public to stay out of the Shenandoah’s waters, as the state does on Virginia’s ocean beaches.
“While health warnings for the public are important, the bigger picture is that the Shenandoah watershed is more than just a drainage system for the livestock industry,” Schaeffer said. “With more effective controls on agricultural pollution, Virginia can keep its waterways clean enough for all citizens to enjoy.”
Read the full report here.
The Environmental Integrity Project is a 15-year-old nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, based in Washington D.C., dedicated to enforcing environmental laws and holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health.
Shenandoah Riverkeeper works to protect the public’s right to clean water in our rivers and streams. The organization stops pollution to promote safe drinking water, protect healthy river habitats, and enhance public use and enjoyment.
Tom Pelton, Environmental Integrity Project (202) 888-2703 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Mark Frondorf, Shenandoah Riverkeeper (571) 969-0746 or email@example.com