Riverkeeper aims to move cattle out of river by 2015

By Katie Demeria

Jeff Kelble, Shenandoah Riverkeeper, wants to remove more than 80 herds of cattle from the Shenandoah River by the end of 2015.

Though the river and its many streams have historically been a primary watering source for cattle, Kelble said their continued presence in the water poses a threat to those using it for recreation.

The campaign has been a long time coming, Kelble said.

“There has been movement afoot, an effort, for several decades, to work with landowners to remove their cattle from the streams and rivers,” he said.

The animals are causing physical damage to the river, Kelble continued. Their movement can destroy banks, pushing sediment into the streams.

“It’s bad for the river ecology,” he said. “And there are times during the year when they will wade or wallow in the river for periods of the day, and they are excreting their waste into the streams directly.”

Kelble is most concerned with the amount of waste cattle are leaving in the river. He said his organization feels the herds’ presence in the water is incompatible with its recreational use.

There are 260 miles of recreational waterways in the Shenandoah River system, Kelble said. His organization has identified more than 80 herds living on unfenced land with access to the river.

“We feel that is directly incompatible with recreational use,” Kelble said. “People that are swimming and skiing, for example, have direct contact with the water. They are at risk of infection.”

Many of those 260 miles of recreational waterways are on Virginia’s list of impaired waters, he said. They contain levels of bacteria higher than the state’s recommendation.

“Cattle have been identified as a primary source,” Kelble said. “We have set a goal, and we want to make every effort to get all these cattle out in two years so people who canoe and paddle the river no longer have to have those concerns.”

Now is the opportune time for farmers to start making efforts to provide alternate drinking sources for their livestock, Kelble said.

“It’s not easy, it’s not fun, and there can be a significant cost association with it,” Kelble said. “But now, the state has agreed to cover 100 percent of the costs to exclude cattle from the waterways.”

Kelble and his team are working to encourage farmers to get started contacting the proper government agencies.

Since sending letters to the 80 landowners, Kelble has already been in contact with many who have been eager to pursue a solution to the problem. Some say they wanted to act in the past, but the Commonwealth was only offering 40 percent reimbursement.

“We think the 100 percent offer is only going to be on the table for a certain amount of time, so we need these landowners to get in line for funding,” he said. “We’ve tried to make the letter inspiring and encouraging.”

The reaction from farmers has been mixed, according to Kelble.

“It is a highly controversial topic, it is not a simple matter,” he said. “The river has been a historic watering source for cattle, sometimes for generations, and there’s a lot of work associated with it. We’re raising what we can to help, and just want them to take advantage of what the state is offering now.”

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com