Clean stream plan reveals need for fence funds, education

FRONT ROYAL – Warren County farmers discussed efforts to reduce bacteria in area streams and watersheds at a meeting this week.

Nesha McRae, a development coordinator from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality Valley Regional Office, on Tuesday reviewed the first agricultural working group meeting that occurred in late January. Working groups will be drawing up a water quality improvement plan for area watersheds later this year.

County Administrator Doug Stanley, representatives from the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District, representatives from Friends of the Shenandoah River and a handful of farmers were present at the previous meeting. Participants had ranked management practices to reduce bacteria in the streams and challenges to livestock exclusion.

The DEQ has monitored E. coli levels in Crooked Run, Stephens Run, West Run and Willow Brook for years. Each stream is on Virginia’s list of impaired waters. Large portions of the bacteria in each stream came from pastures as well as livestock in the streams.

Attendees at the January meeting established that streamside fencing and planting buffers are the best management practices to reduce contamination. McRae presented those at the March meeting with different fencing options whose cost could be reduced by federal or state cost share programs.

Farmer Paul Anderson said that creating those buffers means spending money and losing precious land and time. He said that a 25 percent cost share can still land farmers with a very large bill.

“There’s a lot of things that need to be taken and considered: the land loss … the income is lost, plus you still have to pay taxes on that land,” he said. “And if a storm comes through, you have to put the fencing back.”

McRae said she had seen much larger threats to water quality while working on the North River watershed in Rockingham County. She said that one waterway there was above safe levels of E. coli 99 percent of the time. In comparison, she said the four streams in Warren County were violating those levels 13 to 35 percent of the time in the past 10 years or so.

“I think if even a portion of what we’re talking about tonight gets implemented, we could get very close to removing these streams from our impaired waters list,” she said. “You can violate the standard around 10 ½ percent of the time and not be considered impaired.”

Anderson suggested the plan target areas of the worst contamination first. Another farmer, Mark Unger, said funding programs should be checked to make sure money is going to those who need it most.

County Supervisor Dan Murray Jr. said that inmate labor could be used to install the fences, and McRae said nonprofit connections could be explored to make that option possible.

Unger said cost sharing is the biggest incentive for farmers to take on pasture practices like rotational grazing, despite the intensive labor involved.

“It’s a lot of effort, but if it comes at no cost or very little cost, that’s attractive,” he said.

Dana Gochenour, senior conservation specialist for the Lord Fairfax district, said rotational grazing would be more of a mindset change for farmers. McRae said extending more local education could be factored into the plan.

Landowners and farmers estimated that with some cost share assistance, measures in the improvement plan could be implemented in around 10 years.

Some at the agricultural working group meeting expressed interest in a steering committee that would draft a plan before final presentations later this year. The residential working group will meet in April.

Contact staff writer Rachel Mahoney at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rmahoney@nvdaily.com